Social Media, Revolution, and Enforcement

The cultural economy of South Africa under apartheid was marked by illicit flows of many kinds, including books, video cassettes, and audio cassettes. The economic boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s made cultural goods expensive and often unavailable, leading to widespread and widely tolerated copying—perhaps most prominently of school textbooks. Government censorship and book bans made illegal copying an act of political resistance and gave rise to an array of clandestine distribution networks that enabled the circulation of dissident views. Apartheid’s restrictions on the movement of blacks and the geographical concentration of services in white communities further skewed media access, ensuring that the majority black population had almost no access to legal cultural markets. Vastly unequal purchasing power between blacks and whites meant that geographical barriers to access were, in most cases, redundant. (MPEE, pg.99)

I have been too buried in report editing and production to closely follow the debate about the extent to which social media contributed to recent Middle Eastern revolutions–or to capacities for collective social action more generally.  Positions seem to be evolving. Peace between the Shirkistas and Gladwellians–separated mostly by enthusiasm for the newness of the new technologies–seems possible.  The Morosovian point, that social media are just a new set of tools that can facilitate activism, rather than something fundamentally transformative, seems sound and yet also unanswerable in important ways at this level of commentary.  The embrace of Facebook and Twitter by Tunisians and Egyptians, it seems to me, also has a performative aspect that goes beyond the question of its simple utility.  If people think that their communication on Facebook is transformative, it can become so.  If people are watching their protest reflected back to them by the media as revolution, it can coalesce and focus collective action–and raise expectations for change.  This may have little to do with the qualities of the communication or the underlying technologies, per se, and a lot to do with its novelty and wonder feeding a sense of agency.  It may have most to do, however, with the ineptness of repressive action, as technologies outpace slower-moving government bureaucracies.  These are questions that will take a lot of time and work to unpack in the Middle East.

For my part, I’d push further on this side of Morosov’s argument, that “Strong dictators will find ways in which to control these technologies.” The Tunisian and Egyptian governments were clearly bad at this.  The Iranian government may be doing better.  The Chinese are doing a lot better.

Although the Media Piracy report isn’t directly about these issues, it does paint a very clear picture of the continuity between piracy and dissident speech (in Soviet Russia, in Apartheid-era South Africa, and–for the classically minded–in Elizabethan England).  It makes a good case that the final guarantor of freedom of expression is not the courts or various rights traditions (much less corporate entities like Facebook or Twitter) but the simple inefficiency of enforcement.  We have very little language in our political traditions for talking about the value of such inefficiency. The temptation–and certainly the legal impulse–is to clarify the associated rights, delineating what is and isn’t legal, and establishing due process for settling the boundary disputes.  (As a sidenote: I think that this disciplinary impulse is why there has been so little engagement with piracy in a legal field that has otherwise produced a vast and rich outpouring of scholarship on many related issues.)

But most forms of speech, when threatened with or wrung through lengthy legal proceedings, are effectively silenced forms of speech.  And this has chilling effects–proactively silencing expression or innovation with the instruments of expression.  This seems like an important point to keep in mind as the US Congress debates a major expansion and refinement of government control over these technologies.   And it points to an important question we asked in the report: what’s the enforcement end game?  What is the acceptable level of piracy that would set a boundary on efforts to reengineer the Internet and its many current freedoms?  We have yet to hear it.  (Good for the US Acting Registrar of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, for touching on these issues yesterday in testimony on the proposed COICA bill.) Although the Internet has made certain kinds of expression surpassingly free and easy, bad choices can have long term effects.

From the rest of the passage on South Africa:

Sixteen years after the country’s first democratic elections, the formal restrictions on movement are gone, but the racial and economic geography of media access remains largely unchanged. Movie theatres, bookstores, and music retailers continue to be located almost exclusively in the (formerly whites-only) suburbs, while most black South Africans still work, live, and seek entertainment in townships situated at the peripheries of major cities. Large chains dominate the market, supplanting the older array of independent theatres and retailers. There are, today, less than a hundred movie complexes in a country of forty-seven million, with all but a handful located in expensive shopping malls and districts.

The end of apartheid and economic sanctions in the mid-1990s produced a rapid flow of cultural goods into the South African marketplace, including movies, books, audio and video cassettes, and music CDs. The high prices and underdeveloped retail sector for these goods, however, meant that existing grey- and black-market practices for acquiring, copying, and circulating media retained their place in South African life—especially in poor communities.

 

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