The day the internet stopped

Image: Steve Johnson
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By ARTHUR COELHO BEZERRA*

History shows that the motivation of big tech remains the same: it was never about freedom, it was about liberalism

It took just over twenty years for the world Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and launched worldwide in 1991, reached a third of the planet's population, reaching almost two and a half billion interconnected users in 2012. That year, however, more precisely on January 18, the internet stopped working.

Contrary to what one might think, the interruption of the world wide web was not caused by any technical problem; it was, in fact, a political act, mobilized by thousands of digital platforms that deleted or temporarily interrupted their content online, in protest against two bills pending in the United States Congress. Who tried to visit some of the websites most popular at the time, on that January 18th, he came across messages that opposed such projects: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) – respectively Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property.

Such legislative proposals represented the silver bullet of the American cultural industry against what they called “digital piracy”, a category that included both the sale of pirated media on the streets (in high at the time, especially in cities in peripheral countries such as Brazil ) regarding unpaid access to cultural goods on the internet, even for personal consumption. Backed with an iron fist by associations of the film and recording industries, such projects, if approved, would expand the capacity of enforcement of the laws of copyright of the US to include the download and the streaming unauthorized content of copyrighted content.

The tide, however, was blowing in favor of the pirate ships, with the flag of free circulation of information and culture being hoisted by Berners-Lee himself, sea and war captain of the movement. Next to the inventor of the world wide web, profiled the British Wikipedia and non-profit organizations of digital rights, such as Fight for the Future and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Surfing the wave of pirates defending free culture, a group of commercial companies stood out, most of them newly founded by young whites from prestigious North American universities. The new internet privateers would soon be known by the nickname of big tech: technology corporations on the rise whose financial resources already matched, in 2012, the doubloons invested by the old cultural industries in the legalized market of lobbies of the United States Congress. In the end, the actions of companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter –founded, respectively, in 1998, 2004 and 2006 – were decisive to put a fly in SOPA and pass the cerol in PIPA.

More evident than the economic dispute in the corridors of Washington, however, was the battle waged in the field of ethics. Against the maximization of intellectual property rights claimed by former corporations such as Warner, Universal and Sony, the new internet companies resorted to the tarot of universal human values ​​to draw the cards of freedom of expression and the right of access to information, personifying the figure champions of art, culture and diversity. Such person, before the arrival of the digital outsiders, was embodied precisely by the film and music industries, which enjoyed enormous prestige and prominence since the conquest of the wild west American (where they went, ironically, with the intention of getting rid of the copyright legislation in vogue on the east coast), capturing hearts, minds and pockets with their films and records.

Despite all the critical theory directed at the cultural industry and US imperialism since the Second World War, it is a fact that a large part of the world has consumed and been culturally influenced by the major Hollywood studios and multinational record companies, responsible for the commercial release of artists, singers, musicians, actresses and actors who continue to populate the popular imagination.

This love affair, however, begins to suffer turbulence with the development of digital technology, which allows the improvement of what Walter Benjamin, referring to inventions of the end of the XNUMXth century such as photography, the phonograph and the cinema, called technical reproducibility of the work of art. The new possibilities of copying, reproducing and sharing cultural and informational content over the internet, made in an unthinkable fraction of time for the analogue standards of the Benjaminian era, become, in the XNUMXst century, a threat to the business models built around the exploitation of copyright, which raise barriers to access cultural production that can only be overcome by paying a toll.

For defenders of the free transit of information on the world wide web, such models represent immobility, petrification, circulatory strangulation; at the limit, the death of culture. In the discourse of the cultural industry, however, the damage allegedly suffered by millions of people who are employed directly or indirectly in the productive chains of the sector is highlighted, assigning the nickname of pirates (a category with great moral weight) to all those who copy , share or make available digital copies of content protected by intellectual property and copyright laws.

In addition to the moral offensive, associations of the phonographic and cinematographic industries started to adopt legal actions against consumers of music and films for the practice of download, suing thousands of people in the 2000s, which contributed to eroding the public image of record companies and Hollywood studios and undermining popular support for the 2012 anti-piracy bills.

The numbers presented on Wikipedia attest to the great popular support that the protests against SOPA and PIPA gathered in the United States: on January 18 alone, more than 14 million people contacted their legislators to position themselves against the projects; a petition on Google registered more than 4,5 million signatures; Twitter accounted for at least 2,4 million SOPA-related tweets; and more than 8 million individuals searched Wikipedia for their representatives in Congress (data available on Wikipedia's own page on the subject). The consequent and inevitable death by strangulation of these bills represented not only a moral victory for internet companies, but also an indication that a new information regime was on the rise at the dawn of digital capitalism in the XNUMXst century.

Defeated, even if temporarily (as history would show in the agreements between the cultural industry and platforms of streaming like Netflix, Spotify and the pioneering YouTube), music and film industry associations accused internet companies of using their platforms to incite public opinion against the US bills. On the day the internet stopped, the Google page, for example, displayed a large censorship bar covering all of its well-known logo; when clicking on it, visitors were taken to a page containing information and such a petition against SOPA and PIPA. In 2012, movements defending the free circulation of information and culture did not see this as a problem, as the cause was noble: it was about defending freedom on the internet.  

The ideological mask of big tech falls when, after 11 years of resurgence of hate speech, disinformation and environmental and scientific denialism in digital networks, the vote on the Brazilian Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency Law (PL2630) is finally scheduled in Brazil. On the eve of the vote, in May 2023, the modus operandi 2012 is repeated: the Google home page displays the phrase “PL2630 may increase confusion about what is true or false in Brazil”; Spotify broadcasts an advertisement from the company that owns Google with the same phrase, in audio; YouTube (from the same corporation that owns Google) disseminates misinformation about the PL to content creators on the platform, even promoting a hashtag contrary to the project; and Telegram, owned by a Russian company, sends its millions of Brazilian users a message saying that “Brazil is about to test a law that will end freedom of expression”.

History shows that, whether in the past or in the present, the motivation of big tech remains the same: it was never about freedom, it was about liberalism; it was never about the defense of free communication and exchange of information between individuals, but about the defense of business models free of any kind of regulation or inspection. In 2012, this was still unclear to many people; in 2023, there's no hiding anymore.

* Arthur Coelho Bezerra He is a professor at the Graduate Program in Information Science at IBICT-UFRJ.


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