The Regulation of Liberty:
free speech, free trade and free gifts on the Net
Richard Barbrook UK
(12) This analogy with the
repressive ‘war on drugs’
is made in Richard Stallman,
‘Freedom - or Copyright?’,
page 2.


The Digital Panoptican


While the Net remained a predominantly text-based system used by academics and hobbyists, media corporations could happily ignore the emergence of this participatory form of computer-mediated communications. According to the experts, the majority of the population was only interested in new information technologies which would offer a wider choice of media commodities. However, this ostrich strategy became increasingly untenable as more and more people went on-line. Along with making their own entertainment, Net users also enjoy sharing information with each other. For instance, many owners of music CDs give MP3 copies to their on-line friends - and even to complete strangers. Much to their horror, media corporations have slowly realised that the Net threatens the core of their business: the sale of intellectual property.

The owners of copyrights are now demanding that the state launches the ‘war on copying’. (12) The courts and police must prevent consenting adults from sharing information with each other without permission. In a series of high-profile cases, industry bodies are suing the providers of technical facilities for swapping copyright material. (13) At the same time, media corporations are experimenting with encryption and other software programs which prevents unauthorised copying. (14) However, this anti-piracy offensive is proving to be only partially effective. For instance, the music industry’s attempts to close down Napster simply encourages people to install more sophisticated software for swapping music. (15) Even worse, the failure to agree a common method of encryption means that MP3 has become the de facto standard for distributing music over the Net. Contrary to neo-liberal prophecies, the transmutation of information into commodities is becoming more difficult in the digital age.

Since intellectual property can’t be protected within the existing Net, media corporations want to impose a top-down form of computer-mediated communications in its place: the digital Panoptican. (16) If everyone’s on-line activities could be continually monitored, nobody would dare to defy the copyright laws. When information was sold as a commodity, media corporations would be able to control its subsequent uses. Across the world, security agencies are already developing ‘Big Brother’ technologies for placing every user of the Net under constant surveillance. For instance, the Chinese regime deters dissent by spying on the on-line activities of its citizens. Even the elected governments of the USA and the EU like snooping on the e-mails of their real or imaginary enemies. (17) According to the Californian ideology, such oppressive behaviour would become an anachronism in the unregulated virtual marketplace. Yet, only a few years later, it is commercial companies which are pressing for the monitoring of private Net use to defend their intellectual property. Until there is some fear of detection, people will carry on spontaneously sharing copyright material with each other. Ironically, the ‘negative’ freedom of the First Amendment now justifies the totalitarian ambitions of the digital Panoptican. As the head of the Motion Picture Association of America warns: ‘If you can’t protect that which you own, then you don’t own anything.’ (18)

Despite the futurist rhetoric of its proponents, the digital Panoptican perpetuates an earlier stage of industrial evolution: Fordism. Ever since the advent of modernity, each transient burst of technological and social innovation has been idealised as an a timeless utopia. During the last century, the Fordist factory didn’t just become the dominant economic paradigm, but also provided the model for politics, culture and everyday life. (19) The media corporations now want to impose this top-down structure on computer-mediated communications. Like workers on an assembly-line, users of the digital Panoptican will be under constant surveillance from above. Like viewers of television, they can only passively consume media produced by others. The new information society must be built in the image of the old industrial economy. Free speech should only exist as media commodities.

(13) See the Recording
Industry Association of
America, ‘RIAA Lawsuit
Against Napster’; and the
Motion Picture Association
of America, ‘DVD-DeCSS
Press Room’.
(14) For instance, all the
major record labels are
members of a consortium
to develop encryption me-
thods for copyright-protected
music, see the Secure Digi-
tal Music Initiative website.
(15) For instance, see the
Gnutella and Freenet web-
(16) See Howard Rheingold,
The Virtual Community, pa-
ges 289-296. The dystopian
vision of the Net is inspired
by the symbol of oppressive
modernity in Michel Foucault,
Discipline and Punish.
(17)See Elmo Recio, ‘The
Great Firewall of China’; and
Duncan Campbell, ‘Inside
(18)Jack Valenti talking
about the potential threat
from the DeCSS decryption
program in ‘Film Studios
Bring Claim Against DVD
Hackers in Federal Court’.
(19) See Simon Clarke,
‘What in the F---’s Name
is Fordism’.
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