This past weekend, this site was hijacked by a shady payday loan outfit. It’s the second time this has happened in the last six months, which I suppose, by internet standards, isn’t too bad.
In a related development, Aaron Swartz, who was the co-founder of the information-sharing website Reddit, committed suicide last Friday at age 26. He was considered an Interrnet folk hero for his efforts to make online content “free.” The definitive reason for his suicide is unknown, but he had a history of depression and was facing 13 felony charges, including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, as a result of illegally downloading nearly five million articles from MIT computer archives with intent to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites. His family and friends have issued a statement to the effect that Swartz was trying to make the Internet a better and fairer place.
Also last week, a number of those of us who are science fiction writers received an email invitation to speak at Bexley College in London, offering transport, publicity, and an honorarium. Of course, Bexley is a technical school and unlikely to support a seminar on “The Mystery of Life and Death,” not to mention that the “professor” listed on the invitation doesn’t exist. Needless to say, word spread quickly about this scam.
What I would like to know is exactly how stealing five million articles or hijacking my website for potential gain for a payday loan site has anything to do with making the Internet a better or fairer place. Or for that matter, just how ethical is the cry that “information wants to be free”? How does the epidemic of internet plagiarism do anything to teach students the value of information… or about intellectual honesty?
With the growth of the Internet, the amount of confidence schemes has increased exponentially, and so has the number and breadth of scams, a huge percentage of them targeted at the most vulnerable individuals in society – the less educated [not that some very highly educated people have not fallen for them], the elderly, those in financial trouble, or those who are simply too trusting. While the few big-time information thefts make headlines, even many of those are never resolved, and the perpetrators remain unknown, and it’s just about impossible to make more than the tiniest dent in the volume of successful internet scams and swindles… and, as for piracy… forget it.
No matter what anyone says about pirated and torrent-downloaded books increasing sales… I’m sorry, but the overall figures in the book industry [at least in the field of fiction] give that the lie. Sales are down, and in some areas, such as mass market paperbacks, they’re down at lot, and as I’ve noted previously, ebook sales are far from making up the difference.
Pirated copies of books, movies, and music are theft, pure and simple. Just because someone thinks that the price of a movie, book, or music CD is too high doesn’t justify theft. We don’t justify theft of any other good on the grounds that the price is too high, and we don’t say that other goods that are not essential for physical survival can be stolen because the prices are too high. Moreover, allowing or exalting the theft of information or other intellectual property effectively states that those who create it don’t deserve the same protection as those who produce other goods. Now… some will say that information/entertainment isn’t as vital. Oh… when our society is based on information? And don’t tell me that a Coach handbag, or a Rolex watch or any other counterfeit luxury product knock-off is more important than information or entertainment.
All this brings up the questions: Is the Internet really a force for good? Do its advantages outweigh the drawbacks? And even if it does have a net benefit to society, does it, in its current form, excessively [a matter of judgment, I know] enable dishonest behavior and acts? More important, what, if anything, are we going to do about it?