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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

May You Live in Interesting Times …
February 8, 2012 - 3:55am

We do, because of the Internet and its intersection with business, law and people.  All one has to do is read the newspaper to know it is true.  Facebook seeks an public offering valued in the high billions.  Facebook's value is based on the information YOU provide it, which, technically, has no value.  The content industry is mad as hell about the failure of SOPA,  The content industry is sending out early valentines to academics asking in warm tones to talk about differences.   Google has released a new, reader-friendly privacy policy … that minimizes your privacy.   What constitutes "Internet Freedom" anyway?  Who is in charge of it?   How as a matter of procedural rule of law can it be developed on an international scale given the national-state construct in which most substantive law exists?

These are only some of the high level issues and questions that bubbled up in the mainstream press over the last couple of days.  For a blog writer, it is a daunting array of subjects.  Just as I was about to write a blog on Lori Andrews' New York Times Sunday Op-Ed about Facebook, which is EXCELLENT, by the way, I happened upon articles about European approaches to Internet Freedom.  Yesterday news broke about the letters from Paramount to academics asking to talk.   Rather than turn the blog into a legal brief of reports on each piece, I have fallen back on the purported Chinese proverb about living in interesting times.

I first heard this term at the time of 9-11 and the Patriot Act.  In fact, I participated in a conference on the legislation and its meaning for higher education with exactly this title.  Those were interesting times, and yet, so little has come of them.  The timed U.S.A.-PATRIOT Act sections have been renewed more than once; almost all of the legislation as it was originally framed, if I am not mistaken, has stayed in place to this day.  I suspect that outcome is in part because people learned over time about many misconceptions that concerned, if not sometimes histrionic, voices raised at the time.  In part, I am afraid to say, it is because after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public became both inured and overwhelmed not knowing what or how to react, especially in the light of increasingly powerful lobbying on Capital Hill, virtually stolen elections legitimated by the highest court in our land and then an economic crisis little understood and is still yet inadequately addressed if viewed from any angle: regulation of perpetrators, assistance to the unfairly affected or prevention from occurring again.  It is no wonder that but for a few librarians, people have all but forgotten about the "Patriot Act."   Everyone is too busy trying to figure out whether politics is even worth the effort anymore.

And then SOPA and Facebook.  Of course, copyright issues and social networking, as the Bible says of the poor, have always been with us, but suddenly we are taking notice of them.  The alliterative "piracy"  (I am not fond of that term, but never mind my scruples for now) and "privacy" are rearing their formidable heads, again, but this time with gusto.  What accounts for this new energy behind old issues?  In large measure it is that the Internet giants are now pitted against the Hollywood giants, a fight of the titans.  But it is more than that.  Issues that affected people on the margins, for example students who received RIAA Settlement Letters a few years ago or the Facebook users who got seriously burned when without notice Mark Z. switched the privacy settings one arbitrary morning, have increasingly become everyone's issues.  Slowly, we are starting to make the connections between banks and content owners, big Internet and telecommunications companies and little people's lives lived through technology and in cyberspace.  It's not a game or a novelty anymore, it is real and its effects are as profound as the principles upon which reaction is rising: privacy, freedom of expression, balance in innovation and incentive, an appropriate environment for youth, and, not least, where in the world is the public domain?

Wikipedia suggests that the proverb, if it is Chinese at all, may well be ironic.  I thought so at the time of the Patriot Act conference, but I don't think so now.  These are interesting times, or at least it is up to you and me to make them so.


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