Opinion: Rush to invent new human rights damages the old ones

Opinion: Rush to invent new human rights damages the old ones

Anonymous's website

Internet activist group Anonymous fights for 'old' and 'new' human rights.

I woke up to three pieces of news this morning.

  1. The Guardian has decided that very few lessons can be drawn from the Oldham by-election.
  2. Anonymous has declared global protests around the world for today, continuing its campaign in support of Wikileaks.
  3. Tunisia may be on the brink of civil war after the period of unrest which began when a man, in despair at being unable to find work, burned himself to death. The unrest saw violent attacks by the police on many civilians, and culminated in the flight of the president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

It’s the nature of news to juxtapose things of varying levels of importance, and we can probably agree with the Guardian that the Oldham by-election does not tell us a great deal 1. But the Anonymous campaign disturbs me. Not that Anonymous, the loose web-group which has recently been organising denial of service attacks against companies that cut their links to Wikileaks, is planning its protest to somehow distract from the Tunisia situation.

What disturbs me about Anonymous is the way in which it links the trivial, the mischievous, the contrary and the important all under the banner of ‘human rights’ or ‘freedom’. Anonymous — to the extent that we can really know anything about what it is actually doing — has been active through its Operation Tunisia in supporting the Tunisian protests. It also supported protesters in Iran who, during 2009, campaigned against the results of the Iranian elections which were widely believed to have been fraudulent. In this respect, Anonymous has been a ‘good citizen’, campaigning with its own expertise in ‘hacktivism’ to support on-the-ground protests which reflect traditional human rights values.

But Anonymous has also been active in flooding YouTube with porn as a protest against internet censorship, and, in 2009, it appears 2, leaked personal details of a Californian teenager who was running an anti-profanity campaign, which resulted in hate mail and death threats.

Anonymous has a long term campaign against the Church of Scientology, itself known for its off-beat views (for example, that Noah’s flood was caused by the malign presence of psychiatrists) and unsavoury campaign tactics. In March 2008, attacks on the Epilepsy Foundation in the USA and the National Society for Epilepsy appeared to have been made by Anonymous, but Anonymous itself denied them and claimed that they were really done by the National Church of Scientology in order to discredit Anonymous. Naturally, there is no way of knowing which (if either) is true.

Anonymous seems to categorise together any attempt to ‘censor’ the net, any attacks on copyright piracy, the Church of Scientology, bogus elections, opposition to Wikileaks, and violence against its citizens by the Tunisian state. And cats. The woman who put a cat in a dustbin in Coventry attracted the ire of the 4chan website and its Anonymous protesters.

I am of course not defending the woman who put a cat in a dustbin. The bizarre episode attracted UK and world-wide attention as a peculiarly random abuse of animals. Even the perpetrator could not account for why she did what she did.

I am also not defending the Church of Scientology. While I was at NHS Walsall we came under attack by the Scientologists for simply doing our jobs. Many others have had similar experiences.

Opposition to Wikileaks is a bit more of a grey area. I discussed the issue with a senior journalist and long-term advocate of freedom of the press. His view was that Wikileaks went dramatically beyond any legitimate freedom of expression, and I found it hard to argue with that, though he agreed that the apparent US-led persecution of Assange was also entirely wrong.

Music piracy is, at least in my opinion, not a grey area at all. Unless we are going to collectively agree that all property is theft, it seems to me peculiarly perverse to say that it’s ok to steal someone’s intellectual property but not to steal their physical property. Without copyright, the record industry would have dramatically increased its profits for most of the 20th century at the expense of artists, when the main challenge to distribution of music was the ownership of the means of reproduction. In the 21st century world, musicians such as Suzanne Vega have been able to make use of new technology to record their own music the way they want it, rather than the way a record label wants it, appealing directly to armies of fans through the internet as MP3 downloads or via direct selling through Amazon. However, there are still costs in creating new music, and musicians can only recoup their investment if people are willing to buy, rather than copy, their music.

A hate campaign against a teenager seems to me to be itself an arbitrary and violent abuse of human rights. Arbitrary and singularly contradictory, since someone defending the right to use profanity on the web (which is what Anonymous appears to be doing) must surely also be prepared to defend the right of opponents of profanity to make their case.

Student protest in Trafalgar Square

Police prepare for student protest in Trafalgar Square

During the recent student protests I interviewed some protesters about why they were protesting, after I spotted their banners claiming that free higher education was a basic human right. I was surprised a month or so later to have a similar conversation with a Cambridge philosophy undergraduate, though she did, I think, accept my point that something which only applies to 50% of the population based on exam performance could not be construed as a basic human right, as it didn’t apply to everyone.

This business of rights, though, becomes very pointed when the right to leak information on the internet (also a violation of someone’s copyright) is being given the same status as the right not to be killed by the police in a mafia state.

Fundamentally, there can only be a limited set of inalienable human rights, and those human rights have got to be things which every state can in some way protect. The more that we try to make up additional rights to suit whatever rhetorical point we are interested in at the time, the more we dilute those rights, and give power to the states which have no interest in supporting genuine human rights or even allowing them.

This reveals that the intellectual and philosophical framework about human rights is perilously shaky among most Western people who argue vociferously about them. Not that this is necessarily a new thing: the US Declaration of Independence 1776 has, at the start of its second paragraph, the famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was signed, among others, by Thomas Jefferson, who himself kept slaves, and slaves were kept in the US until 1865.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it was in response to the atrocities perpetrated on its citizens by Nazi Germany, and, to a certain extent, to the atrocities perpetrated on the citizens of other nations by the Axis powers. There was little censure by the Allies at that time of Soviet and Chinese atrocities. Even at the time, there were 8 abstentions against 48 for in the UN assembly — 1/7 of the nations represented.

The underlying thrust of the declaration is that the rights of citizens are given precedence over the power of the state. This pre-eminence of the citizen over the state in this regard is the fundamental building block of a liberal democracy.

Contemporary rights-rhetoric does not only invent a series of new (and often non-compatible) rights, such as those espoused by Anonymous, but also changes the basis of their application. We are suddenly no longer asserting our rights against the power of the state, we are asserting our rights against non-state organisations, and, in the case of the attack on the anti-profanity teenager, against relatively powerless individuals. The Anonymous Declaration of Freedom states:

“Since its inception, the internet has provided new ways for people all over the world to exercise the rights of free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. These rights are not simply the benefits of a free society–they are the very means of preserving that society’s freedom.”

It is prefaced with:

“To tyrants, the downtrodden are nameless”

But, without meaning to be, Anonymous has itself become a censor of free speech.

Aristotle, in considering the forms of government, identifies what he believed were three ‘good’ form of government — the monarchy, where a single ruler rules for the benefit of all, the aristocracy, where the ‘high’ rule for the benefit of all, and the polity, where the citizens rule for the benefit of all. His three corrupt forms he refers to as ‘democracy’, where the citizens rule for their own benefit, the oligarchy, where a few rule for their own benefit, and the tyranny, where a single ruler rules for his own benefit, against the benefit of all.

By its exercise of power without responsibility, putting forward its own agenda even at the cost of death threats to an innocent (though possibly unwise) teenager, and its confusion of fundamental human rights with those things which its own loose group of members believe should be rights, and its willingness to arbitrarily apply the power of hactivism to bring down websites and businesses, Anonymous has now firmly placed itself in the role of the internet’s first true tyrant.

And, as its own pre-amble would suggest, Anonymous probably has very little understanding of the impact of its decisions on those that it mistreats.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Although I would argue that the kinds of attacks perpetrated against Elwyn Watkins during the General Election campaign, and which are actually not that uncommon, will begin to die out as a campaigning tactic following the court ruling which triggered the by-election, and this is quite significant and highly welcome
  2. Because Anonymous is a very loose group, it is never easy to pin down what exactly its relationship is to such an attack, though this one has not been denied by Anonymous
  • Digressing on you discussion of music piracy, I’d be interested in your opinion of the ‘theft’ from public domain by large media conglomerates who actively lobby for longer and longer copyright protections.

    Copyright was originally established for something like 20 years in order for the creator to earn a little back from their own work before it was turned over to public domain for the benefit of all – for remixing and retelling. As such companies like Disney have been able to benefit for years from original stories and creations without paying one penny in royalties.

    And yet, large corporations such as Disney are the one’s destroying and stifling culture by lobbying for ever longer copyrights to protect their precious mouse.

    I mean no disrespect, your article for the most part is balanced, but if you think copyright is not a grey area, then you have a way to go in understanding culture and the history of human progress.

    You do realise, for example, that Hollywood was founded on piracy of works from Europe and even American artists don’t you?

    Look up the origin of the word Yankee – and why Americans were given the nickname.

    If I steal your bicycle, then I have deprived you of something and that is theft. If I make an exact copy of your bicycle then I have deprived you of nothing – I have not stolen your bicycle I have merely copied your original idea. I may even improve upon the design and make a better bicycle – which you would be free to copy and we’d both be better for it.

    People are entitled to some recompense for their work and ideas – but copyright was never meant for the abuses we see today where corporations seek to control all creativity and continue to make money long after the original artist has died.

    We need more defenders of public domain, not the Disney corporation.

  • Thank you for your comments.

    There’s a very good Wikipedia article on Copyright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright

    Modern international copyright begins with the Berne Convention of 1886, which set the standard as the author’s (or creator’s) lifetime plus fifty years. The short copyright on recorded music was an aberration from this, largely in favour of the record companies which could then issue a back catalogue without paying the artist anything. Since only record companies had the means of reproduction, and were able to make agreements with each other, this was heavily in their favour compared to the Berne Convention.

    The Wikipedia article on Yankee doesn’t quite connect to what you were saying. Perhaps you have another source?

    But to your substantive point: if I sell bicycles, and you steal one or more of my bicycles, then you are stealing from me. If I sell ideas, or music, or novels, and you take one of my ideas, or a piece of my music, or one of my novels, and pass it off as your own, then you have stolen something which is much closer to me than the bicycle I might own. If I’m intending to sell my ideas far and wide, but instead you take them and give them away for free, or sell them at a lower price, you have deprived me of my income. Since it might take me a year to write a novel (alright, my last one took 12 days, but the previous one took three years), and another six months to sell it, you’ve deprived me of a great deal more than the value of a bicycle.

    If you carry on doing this, you will put me out of business, and you will then have deprived the world of an original artist.

    Consider also translation. If a company commissions a translator to translate a literary work, the copyright of the translation remains with the translator, except as set out in the contract. If the company were to pay a low translation fee, on the understanding that the total amount of work would be recompensed through copyright fees, but then simply issue the book and not pay the money, the translator would go out of business, while the publisher, who owns the means of reproduction, is free to make large sums of money.

    Without strict copyright, this is exactly what would happen. Works would cease to be translated, since there would be no reasonable way for a translator to recoup the money they failed to earn translating contracts and HR manuals while they were working on the work of literature.

    I don’t think you can cite abuses of copyright by big corporations (though, even then, I don’t think you’ve proved your case) as a reason why copyright should not exist. Disney did not invent Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it only has copyright on its version of it. There have been more than thirty reworkings and retellings since the Disney version, and these have not been harmed by copyright. Disney currently has a trademark application pending on the name ‘Snow White’, but trademarking isn’t the same as copyrighting. I’m sure lots of people (including myself) would oppose Disney being allowed to trademark Snow White, without us wishing Disney’s film to be made public domain.

    You write: “People are entitled to some recompense for their work and ideas – but copyright was never meant for the abuses we see today where corporations seek to control all creativity and continue to make money long after the original artist has died.” Actually, that’s not correct. The Berne convention makes it clear that the estate of the artist should be allowed to receive recompense for their work and ideas until fifty years after the artist has died.

    Copyright — at least in the UK — does not actually apply to ideas. To copyright an idea you have to patent it, which is a different process. The differences are set out at the UK Intellectual Property Office, here: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/

    If you take the idea of a race of creatures which are similar to humans, but are cuddlier, more like the ‘best of us’, and in some respects similar to rabbits, then you are welcome to do with it whatever you like. You might come up with Moomins, Teletubbies, Tweenies, the characters of Trumpton or anything else you like. Anything else, except, of course, “In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” . The idea of hobbits is not an idea like a bicycle which can be improved upon. It is an idea which sprang into life in one author’s mind. If, fifty years after JRR Tolkien’s death, someone decides to write hard core porn novels about hobbits, or use hobbits as pro-Nazi propaganda, or for a similar purpose, the legal protection will have evaporated. However, they will still be misusing an original artistic work in a despicable fashion.

    So, in conclusion, no, I don’t believe that you have made your case that copyright is a grey area. However, please do feel free to respond with further arguments.

  • Thank you for your comments.

    There’s a very good Wikipedia article on Copyright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright

    Modern international copyright begins with the Berne Convention of 1886, which set the standard as the author’s (or creator’s) lifetime plus fifty years. The short copyright on recorded music was an aberration from this, largely in favour of the record companies which could then issue a back catalogue without paying the artist anything. Since only record companies had the means of reproduction, and were able to make agreements with each other, this was heavily in their favour compared to the Berne Convention.

    The Wikipedia article on Yankee doesn’t quite connect to what you were saying. Perhaps you have another source?

    But to your substantive point: if I sell bicycles, and you steal one or more of my bicycles, then you are stealing from me. If I sell ideas, or music, or novels, and you take one of my ideas, or a piece of my music, or one of my novels, and pass it off as your own, then you have stolen something which is much closer to me than the bicycle I might own. If I’m intending to sell my ideas far and wide, but instead you take them and give them away for free, or sell them at a lower price, you have deprived me of my income. Since it might take me a year to write a novel (alright, my last one took 12 days, but the previous one took three years), and another six months to sell it, you’ve deprived me of a great deal more than the value of a bicycle.

    If you carry on doing this, you will put me out of business, and you will then have deprived the world of an original artist.

    Consider also translation. If a company commissions a translator to translate a literary work, the copyright of the translation remains with the translator, except as set out in the contract. If the company were to pay a low translation fee, on the understanding that the total amount of work would be recompensed through copyright fees, but then simply issue the book and not pay the money, the translator would go out of business, while the publisher, who owns the means of reproduction, is free to make large sums of money.

    Without strict copyright, this is exactly what would happen. Works would cease to be translated, since there would be no reasonable way for a translator to recoup the money they failed to earn translating contracts and HR manuals while they were working on the work of literature.

    I don’t think you can cite abuses of copyright by big corporations (though, even then, I don’t think you’ve proved your case) as a reason why copyright should not exist. Disney did not invent Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it only has copyright on its version of it. There have been more than thirty reworkings and retellings since the Disney version, and these have not been harmed by copyright. Disney currently has a trademark application pending on the name ‘Snow White’, but trademarking isn’t the same as copyrighting. I’m sure lots of people (including myself) would oppose Disney being allowed to trademark Snow White, without us wishing Disney’s film to be made public domain.

    You write: “People are entitled to some recompense for their work and ideas – but copyright was never meant for the abuses we see today where corporations seek to control all creativity and continue to make money long after the original artist has died.” Actually, that’s not correct. The Berne convention makes it clear that the estate of the artist should be allowed to receive recompense for their work and ideas until fifty years after the artist has died.

    Copyright — at least in the UK — does not actually apply to ideas. To copyright an idea you have to patent it, which is a different process. The differences are set out at the UK Intellectual Property Office, here: http://www.ipo.gov.uk/

    If you take the idea of a race of creatures which are similar to humans, but are cuddlier, more like the ‘best of us’, and in some respects similar to rabbits, then you are welcome to do with it whatever you like. You might come up with Moomins, Teletubbies, Tweenies, the characters of Trumpton or anything else you like. Anything else, except, of course, “In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit…” . The idea of hobbits is not an idea like a bicycle which can be improved upon. It is an idea which sprang into life in one author’s mind. If, fifty years after JRR Tolkien’s death, someone decides to write hard core porn novels about hobbits, or use hobbits as pro-Nazi propaganda, or for a similar purpose, the legal protection will have evaporated. However, they will still be misusing an original artistic work in a despicable fashion.

    So, in conclusion, no, I don’t believe that you have made your case that copyright is a grey area. However, please do feel free to respond with further arguments.

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