“Make sure the internet never loses. Ever.” Last week saw the launch of the Internet Defense League, a self-appointed “loose coalition that shares a commitment to defending the Internet.” In a spot of ambush marketing timed to coincide with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, and boasting their very own cat signal, the IDL issued a nerdy call to arms:
“The Internet Blackout was just the beginning. Together, our websites and personal networks can mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws & monopolies. Are you in?”
It’s hard not to point and laugh at a group whose world-view is defined by comic books and one of whose supporters was so excited by the news that they couldn’t tell their cats from their bats. As copyright attorney Leslie Burns commented on twitter: “OMG… When they get out of their parents’ basements, I’ll take the IDL seriously.”
But dismissing the IDL as a bunch of juvenile jokers is a mistake. In fact many of them promote such an image as part of their marketing schtick: follow the money and a rather different picture emerges. One of the prime movers behind the IDL is social news site Reddit. Far from being just a bit batty, Reddit is a subsidiary of Advance Publications Inc, the multibillion dollar media empire privately owned by the Newhouse family, a publishing dynasty that makes the Murdoch clan look like new kids on the block. Well, how about another IDL founder, the Cheezburger Network? Surely the inventors of Lolcats fit the bill of kiddy nerds fooling around in their parents’ basement? Not quite: in the last few years Cheezburger, under CEO Ben Huh, has trousered $32 million in venture capital. Music-sharing site Grooveshark is one of the IDL’s less-wealthy founders: a mere $4.5 million in recent funding. The Open Technology Institute is a project from the New America Foundation, which boasts an impressive list of well-off sponsors including contributions of over $1 million a head from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eric & Wendy Schmidt of Google fame.
The list goes on and the true picture is clear: most of the IDL founders are full or aspiring members of the Internet Fat Cat League. And just as the IDL’s hipster image is misleading, so are their stated aims. The IDL claim they aim to “mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws”: expect this to be dressed up in much high-minded talk of free speech and scary guff about legislation that will “break the internet”.
However the only laws that interest the IDL are those relating to intellectual property, and with good reason: the IDL’s movers are not so much interested in free speech as free content. The genesis of the IDL was the so-called Internet Blackout of January 18, when many sites, including some of the IDL founders, went off-line in protest at the USA’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA was portrayed by protesters as an attempt at Internet censorship, but the real threat was to the business model of sites that rely on the so-called safe harbour provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to protect them against legal action for copyright infringement. Sites like… Cheezburger, Grooveshark and many other IDL founders.
When these corporations – for that’s what they are – rant against legislation in the name of free speech it’s merely a smokescreen: all they’re really doing is acting to protect their business interests. It’s hard to raise a torches and pitchforks mob with a cry of “defend my venture capital”, but “defend the Internet” will do the trick every time. SOPA was shelved, at least in part because the protesters comprehensively won the propaganda war, successfully portraying the bill’s supporters as greedy corporations out to – you guessed – break the Internet. And so, buoyed with success and wary of a future SOPA, the IDL was born.
As it happens, there’s a very good analogy for the many of the IDL’s founders, but it’s not kids in basements. Like the spivs of the banking industry, the freetards at Cheezburger et al have developed business models based on theft. Both the spivs and the freetards display an overwhelming sense of entitlement. And when faced with legislation both groups raise the same battle cry: “You don’t understand how these things work, regulation will break the system.”
Since most legislators understand little about the workings of either the Internet or the financial markets it’s not surprising that such a strategy is successful. No politician wants to be accused of supporting laws that wreck either the financial markets or that new-fangled interweb thingy. So if SOPA or similar does return, expect it to be accompanied by large helpings of very well-funded FUD from the IDL. Perhaps they should replace that cat on their signal with a dollar sign.