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The establishment’s ideas on what constitutes ‘free speech’ have come under a fair bit of fire recently.

Nial Vivian

Teenagers arrested for ‘inciting riots’ on Facebook, Andy Coulson’s role as Cameron’s personal spin doctor and involvement in the ever-deepening hacking scandals, the government’s attempts to bypass the competition commission and allow Murdoch to own over 90 percent of Britain’s mainstream media outlets, these blatant attacks and more have shown us to what lengths those at the top will go to in order to keep their voices the loudest.

Thankfully in these times when mainstream media tries to spoon-feed us our views like a baby in a high chair, the internet is allowing us all to express ourselves however we want.  Between pictures of cats and toddlers playing table tennis, police brutality has been exposed, protests organised, voices heard and government spin shattered in a truly revolutionary rebirth of free speech.

The internet has of course bought in a number of big-name industry detractors, arguing that such freedom of information is hurting their astronomical profits. In a similar fashion to the way news coverage has been wrestled away from the big names such as Newscorp and government spin on drug use and the menace of ‘benefit cheats’ has been put to shame by freelance journalists, in decreasing the impact of advertising – such as label-approved playlists for Radio 1 DJ’s – file sharing has levelled the playing field for many small artists and independent film studios, letting creativity flourish away from the say-so of big money shareholders and their profit motives.

Step in Richard O’Dwyer, a student from Sheffield who ran website ‘tvshack’ which provided links to TV shows and films. After having his computer seized in late November 2010, the US Justice Department requested his extradition for trial against the charges of ‘conspiracy to commit copyright infringement’ and ‘criminal infringement of copyright’, which combined present him with a maximum sentence of 10 years in a US prison. Under the extradition act 2003, only ‘reasonable suspicion’ is now required for extradition, as was seen in cases presented in relation to British subjects and the ‘war on terror’, and so it was that O’Dwyer’s extradition order was signed on 13 January this year.

His case, atrocious as it is and part of a ‘conveyor belt’ hearing in which 30 or so British nationals were to be flown out for trial under US law, merely serves as a test case for what current law would allow for in prosecuting individuals for their internet activity, as well as Britains’ complicity in allowing American capital to extend its reach beyond its borders.

Recently the US government fronted the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts (SOPA and PIPA respectively) under the guise of protecting the intellectual property rights of its citizens, and the EU are seeking the same with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

Behind this thinly-veiled reasoning we saw proposals that would mean any website accused of copyright infringement or association with accused websites (most commonly through links posted) could be wholeheartedly censored. The nature of the internet, in that everything is either already linked or easily linkable, would essentially mean that governments, in the pockets of lobbyists, would have carte blanche when deciding what we could see or hear over the internet.

The call to censor the internet in this manner does not come from impoverished artists. It is made in their name from the corporations and businesses, who cream a large chunk from their earnings, steer their work away from artistic expression towards profitability and artificially create popularity by flooding the market with the works of those they ordain. The fact that in today’s society what is pushed on us is specifically apolitical and introverted is alas to be reserved for another time.

The fact of the matter is, regarding file-sharing, that only the top 25% of earners lose out, whereas the other 75%, the artists who probably do deserve a little more funding, actually benefit. Instead of having Jonathan Ross or Chris Moyles tell you what you like, you see, you can use Grooveshark or Moviedatacenter to find out what people actually like. Even big-name moneymaking artists like South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone agree that file sharing actually benefits artists, giving smaller names an audience and encouraging fresh ideas as funding gets funnelled away from the mainstream.

The reality is becoming, however, that any association with elements of copyright infringement on the internet will see you censored, deported and imprisoned. The grounds for such ‘association’ are able to be broadened so drastically and are so open to exploitation that it boggles the mind. Imagine somebody posts a link on a website you run, this link is deemed to be an infringement of copyright, your website is taken down and you are liable for prosecution. It is for this reason that such huge protests took place over SOPA and PIPA, and are now taking place against ACTA in most major cities across Europe.

Reddit, Wikipedia and many other websites ceased operation for a day in protest of the US governments’ proposals, giving a glimpse of what the internet will become should we allow such motions to pass. Huge swathes of American people took to the streets to protect what has become the pinnacle of free speech in modern society, and saw a great deal of success in lobbying their own senators to put a stop to the acts. In Europe now, buoyed by victories across the Atlantic, people take to the streets in over 200 cities, the largest so far in Sofia, Bulgaria seeing over 50,000 protestors turn out. Many countries have put their decisions on hold, and many protestors will be satisfied with such a result.

But that is all it is, on hold. Even then, with many quasi-left politicians showing support for these protests, the onus on the profitability associated with such innovation reigns paramount. It is for certain that stopping now, not pushing for the internet to remain the free medium of expression it has become, especially regarding the free-flow of information and ideas, will lead to the passing of a new, perhaps more cleverly worded, motion that will allow for no more than a hollow sense of victory.

The internet is in a sense just a projection of our identities, that cat that jumps out of the big box in a hilarious manner and Demotix all included, and to censor it is to censor ourselves, our thoughts, our dreams, our pets and our talents. That capital interests seeks to do so is no surprise – our real individuality isn’t marketable, isn’t for profit, isn’t capitalist.