Opinion: The Key Difference Between the Media Getting Link Taxes Wrong and FileSharing Wrong

Drew Wilson reflects on what is so different about the media getting link taxes wrong and getting filesharing wrong.

Some of you may know that I’ve been around a really really long time. At the time, all people wanted to talk about was file-sharing and copyright law. This was largely because the copyright industry like the RIAA and MPAA were basically declaring war on the Internet and refusing to believe that there was a viable business model with this Internet thing. As a result, they really believed that if they just sued enough of their fans and drove enough companies into the ground, then this Internet fad would finally go away and people will be back in the brick and mortar retail stores buying CD’s and DVD’s.

Obviously, that never happened and the industry was dragged kicking and screaming into modern times to some degree. Yes, file-sharing lawsuits still happen and there are still very archaic views on how the Internet should be run, but it’s a pretty safe bet to say that we are in a much better position now than we were in the mid 2000’s.

Of course, my experience at the time had one thing all of us file-sharing reporters had in common: fighting to get the facts right with mainstream media. For pretty much every outlet out there at the time, media outlets really had a hard time understanding how the Internet even worked. So, relying on old habits, they simply went to one side of the story and simply ran articles accordingly. Specifically, they had a habit of simply running to the RIAA and MPAA, taking their word at face value, and running news stories accordingly.

The problem was that the likes of the RIAA and MPAA were advancing some very wrong theories. Most famously, they were screaming how file-sharing is killing the music and movie industry. Other theories they were advancing at the time was that one download means one lost sale. Also, they were running on the premise that if they sued enough people, then file-sharing would finally cease being viable and people would be back at H&M buying up albums again. The theories got so ridiculous that CRIA once even advanced the ludicrous theory that file-sharers are the ones asking to get sued so they can learn that file-sharing is bad and they can go back to the record store.

All of these theories are, of course, either critically flawed or completely bunk. Still, a big problem was that the media was simply just believing everything they said and reporting it all at face value. After all, if they were publishing press releases that said this, then it must be true. A simple explanation is that the media at the time was simply ignorant about the issues. Many of the journalists had no experience with the Internet, let alone file-sharing. Plus, the Internet was this new monolithic “other” that can very easily be demonized because few knew anything about it in the media.

This represented a fantastic opportunity for online journalists at the time. A number of websites cropped up and it helped popularize digital rights organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). While I wasn’t around at the very beginning, in the grand scheme of things, I was around pretty early on at the very least. When I jumped on board Slyck’s news staff all those years ago, there was this notable undercurrent of skepticism of what the media published. We were very mindful that what gets published in the media wasn’t always true. This largely came back to the ignorance the media displayed.

So, we all worked hard to set the record straight. What was the real story about file-sharing? What can be learned about it and where are the opportunities in this rising age of the Internet? We discussed the early beginnings of podcasting and how cultural preservation really became a thing with file-sharing. What’s more is that new ways of re-using media could very easily be aided by the efficiencies of file-sharing. Of course, chief of all things we did was to continually debunk the myths surrounding file-sharing.

Of course, there was one very key point to be made: the media was ignorant of the issues. This meant that it was possible to, over time, gradually teach the media about the issues and, hopefully, get them to stop regurgitating RIAA press releases as the be-all end-all solution to reporting on the story. They didn’t necessarily have skin in the game at the time, so this idea was always possible.

Fast forward to today and, on the surface, a seemingly very similar story is playing out with respect to the link tax debate. The media is publishing false and misleading information regarding Bill C-18. While writing that, I couldn’t help but get a sense of nostalgia of the old days where I was debunking myths about file-sharing. Here I was, setting the record straight on what the real deal is with link taxes just like I was taking part in setting the record straight about file-sharing.

While the dynamic might have felt the same on the surface, dig past the surface and the situation is a very much different one altogether. In this instance, the large media outlets were anything but ignorant of the situation. They know full well what is happening. The problem is, they have skin in the game. They want to advance these laws because they stand to get a financial windfall at the expense of an increasingly successful Internet. The fact that they just happened to be advancing articles supportive of link taxes and advancing conspiracy theories and misinformation is no accident. The proof was in how the outlets reacted when an article was nixed that raised very real concerns about the legislation.

In a sense, rather than the RIAA advancing conspiracy theories and misinformation to a gullible media, the media had filled the roll of the RIAA and were advancing the conspiracy theories and misinformation themselves. What’s more is that they were doing so for their own financial gain. I don’t think that, all those years ago, anyone I worked with could have imagined a scenario like that. Paid shills flooding comments sections? Maybe. The media intentionally misleading the public to screw over the entire Internet for their own financial gain? That’s the stuff of conspiracy theories and highly unlikely.

What a different 15 years makes.

Today, I would submit that the situation is far more dangerous then it was back then. Sure, people like me can build news sites on our own and try correcting the story, but the larger outlets have every incentive to suppress any thought that questions the link taxes. There’s no media outlet to teach or guide about the other side of the story. We’re not even getting into how the media has become part of much larger entertainment conglomerates in the first place – again, not something we could have imagined would happen to a large scale all those years ago.

It’s a really concerning sight to see these days. I have to worry about the possibility that my whole site could get shut down one day because one of these laws went too far. For instance, what if the link taxes was mutated into any website that publishes links – not just large aggregators and platforms? If these link taxes become the law of the land, there is a very clear path to this scenario. The media outlets could just advance the conspiracy theories that us smaller sites linking to them is akin to stealing their content and that small sites like us have to pay million dollar license fees to keep going. What’s more is that the law doesn’t really have to be tweaked that much to make it happen.

It drives me nuts that these are the kinds of things I have to worry about today. Upload filters have become the law of the land in some regions. Link taxes are also being passed in other jurisdictions. It’s not as though these are laws that are too ridiculous to pass. These laws are getting passed. In some cases, these laws are getting passed with the nodding approval of these large web giants on top of it all.

Because of all this happening, it makes me concerned about the future of the Internet at large. Could starting up a website with a hope and a dream to make it as a successful business be a thing of the past? Will online entrepreneurs have to resort to simply riding the coat tails of one of these large tech giant’s? This is, by far, not the original intent of how a modern Internet should operate. Yet, the direction we are headed to today, it’s precisely what could very well happen in the future. That should be cause for concern for everyone involved.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: