My friend informed me of a website called sci-hub.io, a pirating website that gets past the paywalls of closed access journal websites. When he sent me it, he said, ‘I know you’re the sort of idiot who would have a problem with this, but have a look.’ He said this because he views me as a contrarian. My initial reaction, to his surprise, was that I thought it was a good thing. The current model for academic publishing is insane, with publishers charging institutions a fortune when it is research institutions who funded the content of the journals in the first place. This also means that individuals or independent academics can usually not afford to pay for access to literature themselves.
But, he was kind of right. I do have a problem. Not with Sci-Hub, but with the implication made by this article in Big Think covering the resource that somehow, pirating is a solution to being priced out of a social good and even something that is politically radical. This opinion is echoed in common sense.
The article refers to the creator as the ‘Robin Hood of Science’, and all praise to her, as she’s created something helpful. But, the fact is, Robin Hood was a collaborator. For sure, robbing from the rich to give to the poor sounds noble and does help actually existing poor people, but it does nothing to undermine the status quo that is the root cause of poverty, if anything, it reinforces it be deferring the crisis.
Imagine yourself as Prince John. You have a vested interest in getting as much money as possible, and spending as little of it as you can on the serfs. This is unsustainable, as the serfs’ labour is a vital part of the economy of your kingdom. If they all die or, what is even worse, stage a revolution because the conditions are so poor, you loose all of your money. However, if some Trot Aristo starts nicking money here and there, he can keep the serfs going without actually challenging your position of power. Not only that, but they turn their attention towards praising their noble (literally) hero, the only person quick-witted and brave enough to take you, the bad guy.
This double false-consciousness tells them, untruthfully, that they are not powerful enough to take you on without a hero like Robin, and takes their attention away from the genuine societal cause of their suffering: you own everything they produce, even though you don’t produce any of it, and somehow have all the power. Now, Prince John, you see that Robin Hood is your ally. He helps sustain the injustice from which you profit.
Now, as I say, I’m not talking about Sci-Hub at all. Pirating is certainly better in this case than Open Access, which is just privateering, rendering the parasitic relationship law. But, lets not pretend that the pirates are in any way a radical political movement. Have a look at this interview with the founder of Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde. For him, distributing illegal copies of Breaking Bad and pornography is some great political cause. So, the fall of Pirate Bay is also the fall of some indeterminate hope for mankind. Have a look at his response to a question about the state of the “open internet”.
Well, we don’t have an open internet. We haven’t had an open internet for a long time. So, we can’t really talk about the open internet because it does not exist anymore. The problem is, nobody stops anything. We are losing privileges and rights all of the time. We are not gaining anything anywhere. The trend is just going in one direction: a more closed and more controlled internet. That has a big impact on our society. Because they are the same thing today. If you have a more oppressed internet, you have a more oppressed society. So that’s something we should focus on.
Why? I may be guilty of straw-manning here, but why is a regulated internet a bad thing? The answer: it removes freedom. But, the freedom of the pirates is the same freedom that allows Google & Co. to have an ambiguous tax status, collect intrusive data about us, and use their profits to fund projects that will result in massive redundancy all without any political oversight whatsoever, for example when Google Smart Cars meet Uber.
Regulation is evidently a good thing in the “analogue” political realm. Health and Safety regulation keeps workers alive. Employment regulation prevents wrongful dismissal. Rent regulations prevent landlords being able to evict tenants on a whim. Why would things be different on the internet? It is not special. Perhaps the solution to the price of TV Shows and Movies is to regulate against monopolies and ensure that there is no price fixing. The solution to spam, viruses, internet fraud, phishing and all the rest is almost certainly tighter monitoring and regulation the internet. Similarly, the solution to everyone being able to access journal articles is probably that the publishing industry needs tighter regulation and that we need more public money for libraries.
However, pirates don’t want this. They thrive in the space created by their corporate enemy. Just as Robin Hood needs Prince John to have the semblance of a radical politics, the pirates need Apple, Google, Microsoft, the music industry and hollywood. If the arts were publicly owned, for example, there would be no place for the pirate. As it stands, the pirates make the injustices of capitalism easier to live with, deferring the point at which a genuine solution is sought, reinforcing the system they claim to decry.