I visited a digital conference last week in Berlin, called Re:Publica. Symbolically enough I arrived in Kreuzberg (Berlin) on May 1st, the day that Germany’s anarchists traditionally gather there to burn cars and protest against their ‘capitalist’ government. Re:Publica felt somewhat similar – save the military police subduing the crowd. No surprise, the conference started six years ago as a get together of bloggers and internet activists who believe the internet should give us unrestricted freedom.
The fact though that there was no internet during the conference due to a technical glitch, immediately proved how vulnerable this omnipresent medium is. Even a conference visited by the tech-savviest brains of Germany couldn’t make the internet work. This is actually what I always like to call the paradox of digital innovation; only when an innovation is at the end of its life cycle, ready to be replaced by a new innovation, it works flawlessly. Fortunately I found some kind Germans who used their phone to set up a small mobile internet hub for me, so that every now and then I could connect to the web – for free.
Anyway, the first talk that made an impact on me was by Glyn Moody, a journalist and open source activist, who spoke about the history of copyright. The first copyrights in the 16th century were basically state monopolies on producing printed copies. The first act though giving a licence to the author, rather than the publisher, was the ‘Statute of Anne,’ enacted in 1710 and literally called “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” The act granted a copyright lasting (in principle) 14 years. Since then the length of protection has only been extended. Today, it’s a lifetime plus 70 years (!).
This means that while publishing and copying has democratised strongly over the last three centuries, the legal exclusiveness of a work has only increased. And while once introduced as a means to ‘stimulate learning’, a copyright today is something that actually prevents us from learning. After all, the freedom to spread data is limited by our copyright laws. And if acts like ACTA and PIPA are taken into effect, sharing will become more difficult and even dangerous. I do of course understand that a copyright guarantees the author a fair remuneration for his efforts, but when you know that we can today all publish a work with the speed of a tweet, you realise something went wrong here.
There were also many political activists – from places like Syria, Iran, and China – at the conference, talking about what it’s like to make and find objective news in dictatorial countries. What I learned is that when governments spy on bloggers, prohibit digital platforms, or simply slows or break down the internet, a repressed people becomes extremely inventive in finding new ways of digital communication. And it’s interesting to see how Twitter for example plays an important role in these countries as the preferred news medium – above the State governed media.
In fact, I learned that even in Western countries Twitter can improve the objectiveness of the news. Katie Jacobs Stanton, VP International at Twitter, showed us how Fox news – not typically known as the most objective news source – recently used Twitter in a Republican Presidential Debate to see if the potential candidates were answering or dodging the question – you could Twitter #answer or #dodge. It clearly gave an insight in the straightforwardness of the candidates. Though the stats didn`t predict Obama`s eventual opponent – Romney was dodging hard – this also shows that a more direct form of democracy is possible.
So I went back to Amsterdam in enlightened and optimistic spirits. Though this doesn’t mean we can all sit back and relax and let undemocratic governments – both Western and illegal – thwart the openness of the internet, I do have the feeling that there is no way back. Whether it is about building a small mobile internet hub at Re:Publica or being an objective news source on Twitter in China, nature will always find a way.