Discussions beyond the dichotomy of ‘downloading is theft’

Discussion of paper: Peer-to-peer-based file-sharing beyond the dichotomy of ‘downloading is theft’ vs. ‘information wants to be free’: How Swedish file-sharers motivate their action. Jonas Andersson (2010) Goldsmiths, University of London

Jonas Andersson’s study of p2p based file-sharing, uses a methodology of combined interrogation of the technological structures, an examination of the aggregated group dynamics and individual in-depth discussions with the people involved in file-sharing. It is encouraging to see how much depth he has put into the methodological process. This is important to note as this more ‘holistic’ view (as in the whole system) is important in understanding what is a complex mix of human and non-human actors and a recognition that both bring agency to the equation, for example:

“The idea of Internet activism can be read in the same way. While “taking on” this role requires active choice, it is not necessarily a conscious effort, and as a computer user regularly occupies several different roles while using a networked computer, it is arguable whether all such ‘actant’ modes are even optional.” (p.296)

The depth of the interviews is doubly important as it presents an opportunity to pass though surface layers into a deeper realm of understanding. For example in the extract below the discourse between file-sharers and the media industries portrayal of them is uncovered (note the names in the text below of are of interview respondents):

“Vega believed that what the industry would see as the main threat is the pluralism of p2p-based file-sharing, namely that more sources and more artefacts would be accessible. Agge and Pringle similarly emphasised the pernickety, discerning habits of contemporary consumers. Agge and LB noted the file-sharers’ lack of respect towards the industry. Agge maintained that while the slogan ‘downloading is theft’ makes some sense in the current legal system (where works of art are made comparable to physical objects), it ostensibly aims at mystifying and demonizing the activity, further reinforcing the ‘copyfight’ dichotomy. A corporate discourse which so fundamentally clashes with the everyday understanding of the activity risks finding users actively distancing themselves even further from corporate interests, and instead sympathising with allegedly more hard-line ‘pirate’ subcultural formations, which at the time of my interviews only appeared to have a marginal influence among everyday file-sharers.” (p.283)

I think this extract shows why the choice of a deeper methodological interrogation is needed, as a more trite approach would not have pierced the surface slogans to undercover the interpolated meaning that lies below. In addition the research is (rightly so) keen to interrogate those to participate in file-sharing into the economic issues that inevitably are raised:

“[A file-sharer stating that he had ‘no bad conscience’] was one of the instances prompting me to see the respondents’ dismissal of the entire content industry as, in effect, a facilitator for justification of their own actions. To claim that the conventional system is not fair, or that it is flawed and does not work properly could in effect serve as a way to simultaneously dismiss the moral concerns that go with this system – regardless of how large a part of this system one would personally be. Subjective dismissal of a system need not mean that the system is objectively flawed.” (p.284)

This is an important point and an issue that p2p file-sharing does need to engage with, though not necessarily on the terms and within the frame set my major media corporations. (Indeed, this is something the some file-sharing groups have started to take on.)

There is also an issue of equality, not the human rights equality we are used to a discourse of (important though it is, and within the research there is an interesting discussion on the ideas of access to culture as a human right) but around the rights and empowerments of technological literacy:

“It has been shown that the p2p systems facilitate great user emancipation, which however comes at an expense: those who are more skilled and computer literate not only benefit from being able to make better use of their Internet connection, they also reflexively see themselves as better placed to understand the technology in question – and by extension, the direction and scope of societal development. This might be primarily attributable to pre-existing differences in knowledge, skill and material accessibility in society which might however, be reinforced by current technology. This is arguably less obvious in Sweden, where levels of Internet and computer literacy are relatively high and evenly distributed in society.” (p.304)

This has been an issue I have encountered first hand; One company I was involved with was created as a cooperative yet as it developed, there was an obvious power imbalance. Those with the skill to sell and those with the programming abilities, who skills were already more valued in the existing market place, also found they are in a stronger position with such an organisation, even though it is theoretically one-person-one-vote. I did talking with sombody from a cooperative organisation about ways of adressing these issues, but none sadly were forthcoming.

In summary, Andersson’s work is an important contribution to both the maturing of the debates around p2p file-sharing and copyright and also the broader issues of p2p theory as noted here.

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