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Bikinis in Saudi Arabia: info-anarchy as cultural imperialism

Bill Thompson
29 July 2003

Follow the debate on p2p: the new information war from the start

Siva makes a reasonable response to some of my arguments, though I’d say we are still a long way apart. I think my main problem is that I agree with much of his political stance and ideology – including the need to defend freedom of speech – but I do not think that p2p is capable of sustaining the weight of his argument. His willingness to backtrack – to point out where he has said anonymity is ‘relative’, or that p2p systems ‘attempt to simulate’ the original internet, reveal that he too sees this and will, I hope, make him more wary with his claims in future.

We also differ in our degree of belief in the political system and in the ability of democracies to renew themselves. I can understand that any thinking United States citizen, watching a global war run by an illegitimate government on behalf of corporate interests, must despair; but I am not yet willing to give up on democracy. If South Africa can overcome apartheid, then the US can overcome the neo-conservatives: it will just take time.

Information anarchy is just the latest variant of West Coast libertarianism, defending ‘free speech’ at all costs, refusing controls over the net because it goes against the US model of freedom, and unable to allow that government can be a force for good. I didn’t like that model when it came out of Wired magazine in the early 1990s, or the Open Source zealots later in the decade. I won’t accept it from the p2p advocates now.

Siva says that ‘this issue is not about bikinis in Saudi Arabia’, but of course it is. It is about the ability of a government to assert appropriate authority over online activity, whether it is in breach of copyright law or against public standards of morality. Pushing for information anarchy is just another way of endorsing US cultural imperialism, with its stress on US values and free trade. When cultural floodgates are opened – and abandoning any possibility of regulating the net in favour of p2p-induced anarchy would open them – then US culture comes to dominate. Look at the film industry or the games market.

Siva, though he would deny it, is promoting the interests of the US government he claims to distrust, because he has not realised that the values that underpin file sharing and Napster are those of the unrestrained free market, not those of democratic socialism. Online socialism is about more than the illusory US model of ‘freedom’. It involves putting limits on what corporations can do, establishing a new settlement for copyright, defending the rights of the individual user, guaranteeing personal privacy and even anonymity against the requests of companies or government, and ensuring online equality before the law.

Siva, and so many others, deny the need for regulation of the net and distrust the idea of trusted computer systems. But these systems are coming. They can either be run by the corporations or by the people, but the people will only exert control through democratic structures, not through the emergent properties of some p2p-based anarchistic system.

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