Piracy & Legal Monoculture
Tuesday July 13, 2021 — San Francisco, California
It’s sad to note that Sci-Hub could not have been created by a US citizen, or a citizen of most other “first world” countries. Open information projects seem to predominantly come out of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia: Sci-Hub was founded in Kazakhstan, Library Genesis has its roots in the Soviet Union, The Pirate Bay is from Sweden. A major reason for this is simply that those are some of the places where the legal system is the most insulated from the United States’. As one of the founders of The Pirate Bay saidI highly recommend this entire interview interview if you’re interested in this sort of thing — I especially love the exchange where the founder asks the astonished interviewer “Well, why should you go to prison? That’s a weird […] Why would you help the state by voluntarily going to prison?” on the subject of DMCA takedown requests:
I think some days we got a few thousand DMCA takedown notices which is interesting because Sweden’s not part of United States. We very often replied exactly that, that we know that United States have this law called DMCA. It’s not applicable outside of the United States and I know you like to invade countries because – and enforcing your law and so on, but you have to do it before you can actually tell us to use your law, so we basically told them fuck you, fuck off.
It seems to me that a major goal of neoliberal imperialism in the United States today is the molding of legal systems around the world into the same shape as that of the United States. James C. Scott writes in Two Cheers for Anarchism:
One can look anxiously ahead to a time, not so far away, when the North Atlantic businessman can step off a plane anywhere in the world and find an institutional order — laws, commercial codes, ministries, traffic systems, property forms, land tenure—thoroughly familiar. And why not? The forms are essentially his own. Only the cuisine, the music, the dances, and native costumes will remain exotic and folkloric … and thoroughly commercialized as a commodity as well.
The United States has been developing this playbook essentially since the end of WWII, when it picked up enough power to be a major international player. Perhaps the most successful it’s been has been in reshaping international drug laws to reflect its own hardline attitude. During the midst of the Prohibition, the United States withdrew from negotiations on the 1925 International Opium Convention, finding that it didn’t take a restrictive enough stance. 36 years later, having developed atomic weapons, the US was in a much better position to get the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs passed, finally exporting their drug policy to the rest of the world via the United Nations. The reason that drug scheduling is so similar throughout the world is largely because it’s mandated by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.Reality is, of course, more complicated than this — international treaties are by nature easy to break, and there are many way for countries to work around the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but by and large, the United States has been quite successful in exporting its drug policy internationally.
It seems to me the next frontier here is intellectual property lawI’m largely discussing IP law as it relates to the internet, although there are many other places that this plays out. One of the most interesting ones is India’s stance on pharmaceutical patents, which allows cheap generic versions of many drugs to be manufactured, despite patents attempting to prevent that., although the tools are somewhat different. Rather than attempt international treaties, the current approach mostly consists of suing operators of noncompliant sites in the United Statesaaaaarg.fail has a novel but somewhat sad way of getting around this — after getting tired of lawsuits the site simply does not allow access from any North American IP addresses. (despite those sites and their operators being based outside the jurisdiction of the United States), winning the lawsuits by default, and then pursuing injunctions to force United States based tech companies and ISPs to cease allowing access. Since so much internet infrastructure operates in the jurisdiction of the United StatesI’m surprised that the DNS roots, of which 10 out of 13 are under US jurisdiction, have not been targeted yet. I’d guess that they’ve been spared so far due to the amount of fallout that targeting them would have, but I don’t expect that to last., this approach seems like it has potential, although it hasn’t yet stopped Sci-Hub.
If this approach fails, though (as it has so far, with Sci-Hub having survived for a decade, and The Pirate Bay for even longer), we should expect the United States to attempt to enforce a legal monoculture of IP laws on the rest of the world, as it has in other arenas. A United States citizen could not have created Sci-HubAt least, not without living in one of the few countries that doesn’t extradite to the US., so a logical next step to prevent its existence is to wield international power to make it impossible for a citizen of any country to found something like Sci-Hub.
While the best tactical way to win these fights seems to consist of being nimble, clever, and fearless (switching domains and jurisdictions, etc), it’s prudent to keep an eye on the global trends as well. A legal monoculture brings significant systemic risk, and is worth fighting against.