Congress breaking the internet: bad for you, complicated for artists
The other day, I received an email from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand replying to an email I’d sent about my concerns over the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, two controversial bills in the House and Senate respectively. I’d admittedly sent the email in a haze of distractivism, having a general grasp of the bills but not really digging deep into the issue. So I was a little embarrassed to read that Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of the bill. Her generic reply to my generic petition letter shamed me into doing my homework, and in that process I thought about how much these issues affect contemporary art practice and artists, including those currently in The Young and the Recluse.
For those who don’t want to do homework: these bills are essentially the equivalent of international sanctions for websites. PROTECT IP gives powers to the US Justice Department to seek court orders on websites here and abroad that engage in “infringement activities” (i.e., distribution of copyprotected content). That court order would require ISPs, financial service providers, and search engines/sites linking to content to cease financial transactions withand linking to sites and domain name servers would be ordered to take steps to prevent the infringing site’s domain name from resolving to its IP address, making it harder to actually find online. SOPA additionally makes streaming copy-protected content a felony, and gives immunity to ISPs that take action against these websites.
The implications for artists are pretty obvious, but so is the dilemma faced by young artists trying to establish a practice without being exploited. At this point, artists, especially young ones, are more or less expected to have a solid internet presence and brand identity. Your profile as an emerging artist is ranked by your Googleability. Having an online presence was a big influence on the careers of most of the artists in The Young and The Recluse. But once you have a really broad distribution of your work, it’s easy for it to be misattributed or stolen (and not necessarily by artists—news and advertising agencies scour the web for content all of the time, and those photographers rarely see a penny). It’s one thing to be influenced by fellow artists sharing work online, but it’s another to rip them off—and at what point is that line actually crossed?
Then again, a lot of emerging artists wouldn’t be where they are today without the ubiquity of free content online. Think of all the memes and remixes and mashups that wouldn’t exist under this legislation.
TOR’s widely circulated and totally awesome Illinoize remixes Sufjan Stevens with artists including OutKast, Aesop Rock, and Big Daddy Kane—how quickly would this be taken down in an internet under the proposed legislation? (Answer: hella fast.)
The kind of people who will be asking the Justice Department to prosecute these sites aren’t going to be young artists who can’t afford attorneys—it really only serves large-scale commercial culture and entertainment. In Congress, technology issues generally fall under the umbrella of commerce, so legislation concerning them are framed to protect and improve conditions for the market, not for citizens (it’s kind of telling that there’s a select committee on these issues named Emerging Technologies and Economic Competitiveness, not Emerging Technologies and Freedom of Expression).
Personally, i don’t think there’s a question of whether this law is good for art—it’s not. But I say this thinking of artists as citizens and laborers, not as businesspeople themselves. Where do artists place themselves on that spectrum? Where should they?