The Immorality of the Internet

Two weeks ago in this space, I posted about a discussion I had with the owner of an ebook pirating website, and went on to explain why I believe it's immoral both to consume and to provide pirated copies of copyrighted works.

I've continued to think about this issue because it's important to me both as a writer and as a reader. An environment in which the value of writing drops to zero would impoverish me personally and the literary world in general. Yet people who love to read pirate books. Why? I found my answer in the book I read today, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

Part of the reason digital piracy flourishes is the fundamental immorality of the internet as currently designed. (No, I'm not talking about porn sites--I'm talking about this blog, YouTube, Facebook: the bits of the internet all of us use every day.) How can that be, you ask? Isn't the internet just a tool that can be used for good or ill?

While the internet certainly contains numerous tools, it's more than that--it has become an environment in which many of us spend a significant fraction of our lives. And that environment--or any environment, for that matter--has a profound influence on our actions.

The popular conception of morality is that it's something innate to individuals. Most people think of themselves as moral, but can readily identify others (a mother-in-law, a spouse's friends) who aren't. In fact, for most of us, morality has far more to do with our circumstances than any innate characteristic. A famous study Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point found that most seminarians would stop to help a person in distress if they were told they had plenty of time before their lecture, but only 10% of them would stop if they were told they were late. To a lecture on the Good Samaritan, no less. Similarly, cities have discovered that they can cut crime rates merely by cleaning up graffiti and broken windows--the people haven't changed, but the environment around them has.

Would thousands of people have stolen ASHFALL if they had to come into my house and look me in the eye as they took it? Of course not. The internet is immoral as currently designed precisely because it creates conditions in which immoral behavior is easy, anonymous (or nearly so), and so widespread as to become a social norm. (Lanier never calls the current design of the internet immoral, by the way, but that's the logical outcome of his arguments about transient anonymity and mob behavior.)

I can hear the howls of protest from pirates. File-sharing is not stealing, they will say. I'm not depriving anyone else of a book when I pirate it. And in a sense, they're right. Stealing is an inadequate metaphor for digital piracy. Lanier suggests a better one when he compares digital piracy to counterfeiting.

Currency and books only have value (except perhaps as fire-starters) when they're scarce. Counterfeiting doesn't take money from anyone--rather, it devalues all money in exactly the same way that digital piracy devalues all content. Counterfeiting is a worse crime than theft because it hurts the entire society, not just one individual. That's why faking a $100 bill (or even just holding a fake with fraudulent intent) is a felony that will get you 15 years, while shoplifting a $100 item is only a misdemeanor. Counterfeiting undermines the value of currency; digital piracy undermines the value of most types of creative endeavor. Piracy is far worse than mere theft. In fact, the term pirate has too much of a romantic connotation--let's call them counterfeiters instead.

I can hear more counterfeiter howls. Elitist, they will cry. Everyone should have ebooks, even if they can't pay! Information wants to be free! I actually agree with the first statement. Everyone should have access to books--which is why copyrights are issued for a limited period (and why recent expansions of that period should be rolled back). There are literally tens of millions of books that are free and legal to distribute. Recent titles should be distributed in physical and digital form by free public libraries which have paid for the rights to the books.

The second statement is so wrong-headed it's dangerous. It places information--bits in our computers--above the humans who consume and create it. And remember, "worthless" is a synonym for "free." True freedom demands a rich flow of information which can only be achieved by paying for the efforts of content creators--if information ever does become free, humans won't be.

What can we do? Lanier suggests that we redesign the internet, putting into place a system that rewards content creators and prevents the worst abuses to civility. He proposes placing content in the cloud, rather than on our devices, and charging a small fee that compensates creators when the content is accessed. Another idea he espouses is ending all forms of transient anonymity, so that bad behavior will follow its perpetrators, whether they're anonymous or not--i.e. you'd still be able to be anonymous on the internet only by assuming a persistent fake identity.

What do you think will help end counterfeiting and make the internet a more moral place? Let me know in the comments, please. 

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LM Preston said...

I know authors get up in arms about the pirating thing. But the truth is, the more people who read your book, want your book, search for your book, and exposes your book, the more other successful endeavors can be formed. Like Foreign rights sells, Subsidiary Rights sells and much more. Truth is, before I got a job, most of the books I got were given to me, borrowed from the library, or bought 2nd hand or 3rd hand. No, it wasn't sold thousands of times but in some cases, until the book was falling apart it was passed around many many times.

Unknown said...

The anonymous nature of the 'net does lead us to behave it a way we might not otherwise.

I think that yes - information should be made available to anyone who wants it. And you can always get that through the public library, where (at least in the system to which I belong) libraries are purchasing up to 50 copies of an ebook and paying fees. I pay a small fee to be a member of the library.

The argument of access as the logic to justify piracy is invalid. I'd suggest that most people don't pirate as a political statement. They do it because they don't realize it is piracy, or they don't care. Either way, education on the issue will help.

Lauren said...

"But the truth is, the more people who read your book, want your book, search for your book, and exposes your book, the more other successful endeavors can be formed."

You're stealing from the author. No one tracks pirated copies. The truth is, your excuses don't change the reality.

Stating that downloading a pirated book is equivalent to being given a used copy doesn't hold up. With a used copy, the author has already been paid for the book. I try to buy new whenever possible because of this, because when I buy used the author is not getting paid--I'm essentially getting their work for free. I'll check a book out from the library, yes, and if I like it I'll buy a copy. Most people don't do this. They already have a pirated copy, so why should they?

If someone told you "Your salary is based on units sold, and we're going to give away your work" I think you'd be up in arms and jumping on the copyright bandwagon!

Unknown said...

@LM Preston Thanks for your comment. Check out the earlier post I linked to in this one. I agree with you that piracy may benefit authors in the short term. I certainly agree with Cory Doctorow when he says the biggest problem facing authors isn't piracy, it's obscurity. My concern is the long term. If the norm becomes that books are free, the publishing ecosystem collapses. I'm planning another post on that topic next week.

Lissa Price said...

Great topic, Mike. Isn't it possible that we'll soon be able to encode some automatic tracker/charger within a set of words (i.e., a particular e-book), so any download over the internet would be tracked?

I like Cory, but also think there are authors who are not in fear of being obscure (think big, long-time authors) but who are losing revenue with illegal "counterfeiting."

My publisher asks me to turn in a weekly report and their legal dept does a follow up. I really don't want any of my readers to end up the way the music business decided to crack down on them, fining them thousands of dollars, remember that?

But the reports I turn in are showing thousands of illegal downloads of Starters. If nothing else, those are numbers that are not being counted in the overall picture.

I try to alert any readers to request it from their library. This is what libraries are for and we need to support them.

Okie said...

Great post and great conversation.

I really like the "devalue" comparison for piracy as opposed to the "stealing" comparison that is usually made. It makes a lot of sense and is certainly more valid. I think the "theft" analogy works because it is quick and easy to understand by those talking about the subject. But it definitely opens itself up for the arguments you pose from piracy defenders when they talk about "theft" of "virtual" items.

As a general cheapskate penny pincher, I'm all for getting things for cheap or free whenever I can. However, I know and acknowledge the laws and regulations around commerce.

I certainly don't expect to go into a supermarket and steal a loaf of bread simply because "everyone should have bread." I similarly don't go into a bookstore and expect to walk out with a reference book for free because the information "wants to be free." In the real world if I want something for free, I have to do a little work and find out where it can be legally obtained for free (assuming I meet any qualifications required). For example, if I need food for free, I could try a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. If I want a book for free, I could try the library. In either case I might also consider checking with friends or family to see if they could help me out.

The same is true on the Internet.

I agree that the Internet in itself is just a tool and not "immoral" in itself, but it certainly perpetuates the ability for bad behavior. Since the inception of the Internet it's been observed that people often take on an alternate persona when anonymous often considered outside of the normal rules of society. People are more rude, more outspoken and generally do things online they wouldn't consider "in real life."

Still, I don't expect to click over to and get a free book because it wants to be free. As you point out, there are tons of things you can get free on the Internet. Some are legal. Some are "grey area" and some are flat out illegal.

Plenty of items are legitimately in the "free public domain" and can be obtained as such. Google Books has tons of books for you to browse for free and the Kindle and Nook libraries also have plenty of freebies. Amazon's recent "lending" option for the Kindle is an interesting library-like option to Prime members allowing for "free" reading in a way similar to the brick-and-mortar libraries. I see this as similar to premium "on demand" audio and video streaming services that seem to be doing well.

The difficulty with anything digital is that there will always be those who want to hack their way through any tracking or DRM service attached to any type of digital media. That's just the way it is. I worked in video games for a few years and I remember with the release of one of our games we paid an extra half-million dollars to use a brand new anti-piracy piece of software that was supposed to be top of the line. Within weeks of release, hackers had ways through the anti-piracy software to do whatever they wanted with it.

In many cases, piracy isn't about the media to be "stolen" but about either the challenge of pitting mind-against-mind...or about the principle of commerce and society in general and believing that everything should be free to everyone.

Living in a world where money and commerce are required for living, we need to bond together and protect the rights of each other.

Okie said...

I would love to see a society where writers and entertainers could just put their stuff out "for free" to the public and that the artists would receive (from somewhere, where?) what they need to live and exist.

As I said before, I'm a cheapskate. I wait for sales. I download the freebies from Amazon and iTunes whenever I can. I would absolutely love to be able to hop out to some service and just pull down whatever I wanted to enjoy for free. But that's not the reality of things.

Just like I can't expect to walk into a brick-and-mortar store and pick up a book for free, I have to realize that the digital versions are not free either.

Okie said...

and now that I've said way too much already, there is one more comment I wanted to make which is peripherally on-topic.

I'm not a big e-reader yet. However one thing that I still struggle with is the price of some eBooks.

From a technological standpoint, eBooks should cost far less to produce than a standard bound book. Sure the eBook can/should share in much of the pre-production costs such as editing, layout, etc. But once it's time to send the book to press or to ePress, the cost model changes.

For eBooks there's the cost of whatever software is required to get it into the preferred format for whichever reader you're selling to (including their own DRM tool injections or whatever).

I haven't investigated the methods, but I would suspect that the price of this software is likely shared by the publishing house by ALL of their eTitles such that they don't require each eBook to fully pay for its software costs.

With that in mind, why is it that many eBooks cost as much as their Trade Paperback versions?

Again, I'm a cheapskate but not so far as to go to pirating digital media.

But I wonder if the cost of eBooks is part of the reason that non-pirates go for the pirating option...they likely also consider the eBook price to be highly inflated.

Unknown said...

The cost of printing a paper book is quite a bit lower than most people imagine--something like 10% of the cover price. Shipping adds another 3% or so. So the difference between printing a physical book and distributing an ebook is a lot smaller than readers believe.

The real reason ebooks are occasionally more than print is the distribution model. The number one cost in a book is the retailer's margin--it's anywhere from 40 to 55% of the cover price. So let's say a book is under the agency model and the publisher sets the ebook price at $9.95. Amazon can't discount that. The physical book, let's say is $14.95. Amazon is paying about $7.00 for that book. They discount it to $8.98, and voila, you have a print book cheaper than an ebook.