Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moral Panic and (New) Media

The press ombudsman for Sweden, Yrsa Stenius, sees no alternative than to legislate against the spread of restricted material via internet peer to peer sites.
It was reported today on the Swedish National Radio station P1 Medierna that both Stenius and the Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask believe it is necessary to introduce legislation into the Swedish parliament concerned with "begränsande etiska filter på internet" (restricting ethical filters on the internet).
This is following the torrent distribution of autopsy images of two small children that were brutally murdered in Arbåga, Sweden earlier this year. The torrent is hosted by The Pirate Bay, which currently hosts around 1.3 million torrents.
The distribution of the autopsy images by the Pirate Bay was described by both the Press Ombudsman and the Justice Minister as 'publishing'. The nationally owned commercial television station TV4 which broke the story also termed it 'publishing'. In each instance of the use of the word 'publishing' it is attributed to the Pirate Bay.
Behind the moral questions surrounding the incident there is a broader network of concerns related to digital media and how un/informed government officials are in regards to how it functions.
Someone obtained the pictures from the high profile Arbåga murder of the young victims, they created a torrent and allowed them to be downloaded from their computer. In many ways such an action is similar to what Wikileaks and The Smoking Gun sites do. Once information is in circulation, especially if it is in digital form, there is always the possibility it may move out into the public sphere.
With 1.3 million torrents it is very unlikely that the handful of people who are the administrators of The Pirate Bay know what they are distributing. While search functions can target obnoxious material, it is only a matter of labeling it as something else and unless it is viewed no one knows what the torrent delivers other than the person who is seeding it. In a sense there is no single group or individual/s running The Pirate Bay. Rather it is a network that repairs itself, maneuvers around blockages and even feeds itself (when one torrent dies another takes its place until the material it distributes is no longer in demand). Publishing is more linear between a source and a receiver. Who is legally responsible for the material that is indexed by the Pirate Bay? Well that's the problem. Nobody knows yet.
The reactions around the Arbåga torrent is fascinating. Often via non-digital media those that are believed to be responsible, the administrators of the Pirate Bay, are asked to explain themselves. In an opinion piece for the National Broadcaster Jonas Andersson claims that the Pirate Bay site is a "commercial actor" and an "influence on public opinion regarding copyright and freedom of information". The size of the users body of the Pirate Bay is so vast that it is "monolithic in P2P file sharing".
The emphasis of Andersson's language is consistently to return the debate to the terminology and understanding of old one-to-many commercial media. This is interesting when one considers his research area described on the Goldsmith College website:

My aim is to thus expand and problematise the alleged ideals and norms which are implicit in much of the current dichotomised discourse saturating the phenomenon [P2P file sharing], through critically relating the users’ reasoning to the material and technocultural context.

Anderson is right in regards to his focus on the materiality of the medium. His stereotypical descriptions found elsewhere in his work of 'hackers' is less sound. Finally the concept of "dichotomised discourse" gives the game away as far as his approach is concerned. The discouse is not dichotomised, it is dual because it is set up that way in the media which is simultaneously reporting it and constructed by it. There is no normative center other than that proposed by the center/s of power (something Andersson seems to refer to very infrequently- never in this paper). How can one outline a critical relationship between technology and culture based on discourse without mentioning power?
But back to the issue at hand. Both Justice Minister Ask and Ombudsman Stenius have spoken earlier on an ethical guide to blogging, that would function as a regulatory system. Ask has also said the Internet is a "fantastic invention" (OMG) but it can lead to crime, "degeneration" (Sw: avarter) and we therefore need a Net Police. Now with the posting of the Arbåga torrent it seems there will be more calls for a moral internet.
However, before the Swedish government sets up a net filtering system it should reflect on the experiences of Australia. Under the morally indignant Howard government a national scheme to protect children from the dangers of the Internet was set up in 2007, but in 2008:

The Australian government has officially declared their internet filtering program, which they started about a year ago as an attempt to protect kids from pornography, a complete failure. Only 144,000 copies of the software were downloaded or ordered on CD-ROM with only about 29,000 actually being used. On top of that, kids were able to hack them anyway.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the Australian government hadn’t spent 85 million dollars on this program (it is a central part of a larger initiative that cost, all in all, 189 million dollars); quite a nice amount to throw away for something that anyone who has a clue would have declared a failure right from the beginning.

Their failure can be Sweden's beginning. How very Web 3.0.


NickeH said...

It is extremely cynical of Ask et al to use the Arbaga case to introduce policing of P2P networks and restrictions of file sharing, which I suppose, in the end of the day, comes down to the old (fashioned) copyright thinking that has been part of the ideology of the Alliansen since years back.

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Yes, the history of Alliance's suspicion in regards to net media (blogs. P2P etc) is behind the 'need' to legislate.
How they are going to do it remains to be seen as EU laws about free movement over borders within the zone (of course ONLY within the zone) and a concern for freedom of expression may just stop it.