30 June 2009

Winning the Open Web

It seems an unfair fight. On the one hand, you have some of the biggest, most powerful multinationals, intent on defending their turf and extending their power and profits. On the other, you have a tiny number of ragtag idealists who believe that knowledge belongs to everyone, and that no one should have disproportionately long monopolies on its supply.

And yet: in the last few years a remarkable series of victories have been one by the latter against the former, to the extent that representatives of the big media industries have warned that they are losing the "battle".

Against that background of uneven forces - but not quite in the way the media companies mean it - sharing information about past successes so as to drive future ones is crucially important. And yet it is rarely done, probably because the practitioners are too busy fighting the battles to write about it.

Enter Becky Hogge, former Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, who happily has had some time on her hands to prepare a handy report entitled "Winning the Web":

Winning the Web is a 2009 report funded by the Open Society Institute and written by Becky Hogge, former Executive Director of the Open Rights Group. It examined 6 successful campaigns for intellectual property reform, in Brazil, Canada, the US, France, New Zealand, and the UK.

Lessons drawn from the study of the campaigns include the importance of coalition-forming, the best way to conduct online mobilisation campaigns, and the need for a more unified critique of current intellectual property regimes.

The introduction fleshes out the idea:

The global intellectual property regime is no longer fit for purpose. As the networked, digital age matures, it puts into the hands of millions of citizens the tools to access create and share “content”: text, pictures, music and video; data, news, analysis and art. Against this, the intellectual property regime falters. It presents citizens with a choice: stop using the technology – stop communicating, stop creating – or break the law.

Legal reform is presented with two separate challenges. The first is a small but vocal minority of entrenched corporate interests – the rightsholder lobby. Wedded to business models that pre-date the age of networked digital technology, they exploit their position as incumbents to influence legislators. Often representing the world’s biggest multinational corporations, they hijack a narrative that belongs to poor artists struggling in garrets and use the considerable profits they have made from exploiting these artists in the twentieth century to access the corridors of power and make their case.

That legislators listen is related to a second, geopolitical, challenge. Since the 1970s, the developed world has sought to use the global intellectual property regime to ensure its continued prosperity. Motivated by the ability of developing countries to undercut it on the global manufacturing market, it has sought to augment the financial privilege afforded to “knowledge workers”. The self-interest behind this practice is masked by a flawed orthodoxy that is rarely backed up by evidence – that more intellectual property provision is always good for economic growth.

Against this backdrop, a global IP reform movement (also called the access to knowledge movement) is emerging. Motivated by a range of concerns – from global justice, to the narrowing spectrum of permitted speech, to the broadening of surveillance power – these individuals and organisations approach their campaigning work with combined levels of ingenuity and intellectual rigour that make them stand out in the history of fledgling civil rights movements. Recently, these pockets of activism have taken IP reform issues to a wide audience, triggering sweeping civic action in the general population.

For me, the best bits are the detailed case studies of successful campaigns around the world. I knew the bare outlines, but the report really fleshes these out, and then uses them to provide concrete suggestions of what lessons can be learned for the future.

There's one other point is one that I've long thought absolutely crucial:

In the UK, citizens can engage with their elected representatives (including MEPs) using a one-click service called WriteToThem.com. Jim Killock is keen to stress that it is vital that such a tool be developed for all EU member states:

Writetothem.eu is absolutely critical if we want to run these campaigns in the next four years. It shows the contempt in which we seem to hold our European institutions and the irrelevance that they are felt to have across Europe.

This really must be a priority, or else all future campaigns in Europe will suffer as a result.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

No comments: