Permission to know what is going on, sir?

Google have released a new thingy, which allows people to save web content to their Google Drive (Google’s cloud-based storage thing), and do various things to it like add comments and annotations.

Nothing much unusual about that, and there are lots of similar things out there like the formerly discussed bo.lt. Not to mention every computer in the world, which copies and stores all the web content which comes its way.

The fact that is is so ordinary highlights one of the challenges of the internet for the future. The idea that keeping and changing copies of content you happen to come across should be controversial. It’s not allowed by the law, after all. To the extent that it happens as a consequence of browsing, it is the result of a technical design decision decades ago rather than a natural and inevitable consequence of digitisation.

In fact, digitisation could just as easily do the opposite. Rather than requiring multiple copies to exist, digitisation holds out the possibility of a single copy of something being accessible to everyone. To read a book, for example, you don’t need to hold your own copy in your hand any more. Everyone can read the same copy.

Of course, if we imagine the internet without the constant, prolific and uncontrolled copying which is embedded within its technical protocols, it’s a very different place. Fundamentally, creators would know what was happening to their content, because they would have some control over the master copy. Creative success would be better rewarded and so the internet economy would truly be a creative economy. The protocols and marketplaces of the internet would have sprung up around the idea of permission rather than presumption, and huge new opportunities would have arisen as a consequence.

Contrast that with what we have. Google’s product, and many others, work on the assumption that permission is entirely unnecessary. Making copies, changing work, sharing it with others is all just fine.

The usual circular justification for this (“it’s fine because everyone does it, it’s how the internet works, if it wasn’t fine the internet wouldn’t work”), itself absurd, doesn’t really cover it. After all, copyright hasn’t been abolished yet, and this activity isn’t embedded in the bandwidth-compensating early internet protocols which still underpin things like web browsing (and subsequently protected by various laws, new and old, or generous interpretations of them).

Permission is still, in law, required to make a copy of something. Permission can be denied, perhaps because the proposed copying is damaging, or insufficiently rewarding, or just because someone decides to say “no”.

That concept doesn’t seem to feature in Google’s product. It doesn’t say how a site owner can prevent people copying their content in this way, and I’m guessing that is because they can’t. Doubtless a tortuous DMCA takedown process can be used by anyone who discovers a copy they don’t like (complete with intimidating – and copyright infringing – report to Chilling Effects if the complaint goes to Google) but no ability to prevent it happening in the first place.

The idea of permission seems to just be absent from increasing parts of the internet.

Permission for search engines to create massive, permanent and complete databases of all the content they come across isn’t needed, they say. Part of their justification is that while they might keep huge databases, they only show “snippets” to users, which makes it OK. Oh, but the content owner can’t decide on what snippet is shown either.

The need for permission to be obtained before content is copied for things like bo.lt and this new Drive thingy isn’t needed either. Well, it is in law, but not in practice. Finding and removing copies, wildly impractical and expensive, also requires considerable formalities and the promise of punishment by publishing your complaint, as if exercising your legal rights is somehow wrong.

And now the cloud is creating a new category of permissiveness, things done in private or for small audiences. It’s OK to create a service which facilitates illegal copying because it’s the equivalent of something which would otherwise have happened behind closed doors. As if the law stops at your front door.

This is all a bit scary, it means control is getting ever looser at the same time as the ability of technology to tame the chaos is increasing.

Why shouldn’t a creator want to know who has made copies of their work and why? Is it unreasonable to want to make sure corrections, changes or withdrawal of content actually takes effect? Why shouldn’t someone be able to refuse permission for a use they don’t like or which conflicts with something else they’re doing? Or keep something exclusive to themselves?

And, obviously, what’s wrong with wanting to make money from your work and wanting to stop people stealing it or other people making money.

It’s notable, as I have observed before, that the companies making the most money from content on the internet are those who invest the least in its creation. This seems to be getting worse, not better, even as the technical capabilities to reverse it increase.

The creation of new services, which are entirely detached from the technical baggage of the past, which actually and actively exacerbate this catastrophic trend shows, not for the first time, the contempt with which technology companies view content and creators. Offering users a convenience, without any consideration for reasonableness or the law, isn’t “disruptive” or “user-focussed”, regardless of whether users would be doing it anyway without your help. It’s amoral, self-interested and just wrong.

The internet’s potential to elevate creativity and creative success to the very pinnacle of our culture and economy is still there, but it is still under sustained attack constantly. A permission-driven internet is an opportunity, not a threat.

How much longer we’ll be able to cling to the idea that it can happen, though, is questionable.

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