Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Freedom of Speech


I regularly engage in international online discussions related to the subjects of science, religion, politics, economics, social justice, corruption, and human rights.

As some of you may know, a recent peaceful protest in Malaysia, which was protesting the lack of free democratic elections, resulted in police brutality.  The protesters had been forbidden their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.  Many protesters were arrested simply for wearing shirts representing their preferred political party.

An international conversation was started on Facebook with a post of the following video of the Malaysian protest: Protest Video.  In case you are unable to view the video, it shows among other things: police turning tear gas and water jets into a hospital, trying to cover protesters wounds to prevent them from being photographed, and standing by doing nothing to help a handcuffed elderly protester in need of serious medical attention.  The video completely contradicts the statements made by the Malaysian government about the events.  The government claims that it was the protesters who were violent, and denied wrong doing by the police; exactly the opposite of what is captured on film.

The discussion that spawned from this video included issues of freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, censorship of the press, and also analysis of specific actions and statements by the Malaysian government which was clearly violating these rights.


Western Free Speech:

Much to my horror, I found that some of the content of the discussion on free speech was unavailable for me to view.  Specifically a YouTube video supposedly featuring the ex prime minister of Malaysia on Al Jazeera was blocked to me with the following message:

Unfortunately, this video is not available in Germany because it may contain music for which GEMA has not granted the respective music rights.

***I was furious!***

I get this message regularly!  Often many times a day!  It seems that many of the links I share are blocked to the intended recipients in other parts of the western world, and often their links are blocked to me.  It would be understandable if people were uploading entire commercial films to YouTube, or were deliberately trying to use YouTube as a type of file share for music.  But the reality is that most of the videos which we are trying to link and are blocked, are ***clearly original works*** made by normal people trying to express their own viewpoints!

The special irony of this specific situation was that I was trying to watch a video in the western world, which supposedly preaches the virtues of freedom and democracy, yet a video was being censored which itself was related to the human rights issue of censorship, and the freedom of speech and of the press.


My Response:

I was VERY angry and immediately posted the following bug report to YouTube:

GEMA consistently blocks non copyrighted original work materials on youtube. At most they might be able to claim that some segment, which is clearly a derivative and original not for profit work, contains some trivially small segment of copyrighted material.

In effect this is becoming a new form of censorship on the web which is impeding my ability to have political discussions on a daily basis. Right now I am being blocked from viewing the ex prime minister of Malaysia on Al Jazeera in relation to a discussion on human rights. This is completely intolerable. What is the point of living in a western country that preaches freedom and democracy when in fact our Plutocracy is so greedy that it has to filter every other new flash cartoon or political discussion with the false excuse that we are somehow 'stealing' from them? Who gives them the right to impede progress and international dialog on important issues of human rights or scientific understanding? If someone hasn't by now purchased whatever song it is that takes up 10 seconds of the background music that was originally published in 1974, they are probably not freaking going to!

This has to end!


Public Request:

I ask all freedom loving peoples everywhere to start doing likewise and protest inappropriately blocked material with bug reports or other means.  Our talk of freedom and free speech means nothing if we simultaneously allow ourselves to be censored by copyright Nazi's like GEMA.  To be clear, I am ***not*** advocating piracy.  But I am advocating that collectively as citizens of this planet we find a way to over throw these idea thwarting, conversation stopping, progress inhibiting, greedy, selfish miscreants who have nothing better to do than interfere in the transmission of facts and new ideas with the ludicrous claim that we are somehow stealing from them!


Legally Supporting My Stance:

The famous copyrights lawyer Lawrence Lessig gave a great talk on TED about this issue:  Ironically GEMA has ALSO blocked the copy of his talk that is mirrored on YouTube.


Blocking Ideas and Progress:

Historically, lack of, or limited use of, copyrights has correlated with a cultures advancement, not the other way around.

I can attest to this problem in another way as well.  I have had an idea for a film I would much like to make for the purposes of social commentary on many aspects of the current state of the world.  The film would cover various aspects of the intersections between religion, politics, economics, science and popular culture, and is not intended for or motivated by profit.  I think the insights I could provide with this film would be very valuable to many people in society.  But I have not attempted to make this film.


Why not?


The reason is simple.  In order to express the ideas, I need to make frequent references to, and take quotations from, our pop culture and media landscape.  Even though the work would be an original combination of ideas with my own conclusion, it requires referencing many many small bits of copyrighted material.  Even though I believe I could likely do the film in such a was as to be legally 'Fair Use', that doesn't mean I will not be censored anyway in many parts of even the western world.  This seems to frequently happen to other people.  Why spend a large portion of my time making a film no one will be allowed to watch?  And if a legal battle broke out over the film, even if it was legally 'Fair Use', I could not afford the costs of defending it in court.  Lessig's book 'Free Culture' gives examples of people who were undermined or censored in spite of doing no legal wrong with relation to copyrights simply because they did not have the means to challenge their accusers.

**Edit** => Remix IS the new social language.


Copyrights in general:

In the film 'Flash of Genius', the true story about the man who invented the windshield whiper, he spends most of his life in court to seek justice.  There is a scene in the court where he is accused of not making anything new because his wiper used existing mechanical parts.  In response he starts to read from 'A Tale of Two Cities'.  He asks if Charles Dickens invented any of the words in the novel, or if he simply combined existing words in a new way.  The answer is of course that he created the novel from existing words, and that likewise people build new things with the parts that are available.  The problem is, in the modern world, trying to use a large majority of the existing parts to create something new is treated as a crime!  (Or at least cause for regional censorship!)

Everything in society is built from, on, or with, something that came before it.  Media is the same way.  The conversations of the present and future, ***require*** free use of the types of media which were exclusively controlled and monopolized in the 20th century by the privileged few.  To prevent use of this material in any form across the board is to prevent the needed social dialog and conversations that are required for the advancement of society.  Further, what good are our claims to freedom and democracy if we let a few rich companies decide what we can say, to whom, and how we are allowed to say it?  How is that any better than the Chinese governments censorship?

Many of the practices and legalities which allowed some of our largest companies to come into existence, including Disney, and even Netflix, are no longer legally options for potential new businesses.   Current copyrights even undermine capitalism.



What good are our western claims of freedom if we let a handful of people claim they must block and inhibit our conversations based on the empty claim that: 'our having those conversations' or 'communicating new ideas built upon them' is theft?  Where is the public domain?  Where is free speech?  At what point do we stop letting these people prevent progress and filter our basic human right of international (or local) free speech which is required for social innovation?