Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thief in the Net

The recent leak of nude celebrity photos has provoked a larger-than-average response, centering around assigning blame properly (if you are progressive), personal responsibility (if you are a curmudgeon), and faux-masculine appreciation (if you're a dumb garbage baby with bad stupid opinions). The increased attention and backlash can be attributed somewhat to the targets: Jennifer Lawrence's dual identity as adored star and endearing everywoman made her exploitation much less palatable than, say, Kesha, whose violation of privacy spawned fewer thinkpieces and more tongue-clucking.

In the wake of the leak (a remarkably passive term for a crime that requires both intent and effort), one topic that has gone somewhat underrepresented is how the internet fosters a culture where these incidents are merely the nadir of millions of thefts, reappropriations, and plagiarism (for a better article on how these photos intersect with web culture, see Molly Lambert's excellent piece on Grantland). Nude photos rightfully attract more outrage, but they are the rule, not the exception.

Criticisms of the internet are generally buttressed by caveats and exceptions and subject to the same cross-examinations as gun-control advocacy. The internet is merely a tool, say its supporters, no more responsible for the crimes committed through it than Smith & Wesson can be held accountable for robberies and murders. This fingers-in-the-ears rebuttal is an excellent way to elide that the internet, like guns, makes it far easier to commit violent and invasive activities that would otherwise be the exclusive purview of assassins (in the case of guns) and cat burglars (in the case of the internet). Now, to borrow a phrase from Sideshow Bob, "any Joe Sweatsock" can wedge himself behind a keyboard and commence to uploadin' and downloadin' media, for free, to/from any number of platforms.

The internet provides instant gratification, yes, but goes beyond that. It blurs the distinction between desire and entitlement. If you want something, the internet can and should provide it, free of charge. One finds oneself indignant that, say, Simpsons episodes are not available on Netflix, and delighted to find them via illegal streaming websites. Tweets are aggregated, copied and pasted, and Tumbl'd as fast as they're written. Memes are just photos stolen more than usual. Albums drop early without the artist's consent, and are constantly uploaded by regular folk to Youtube (these latter are often accompanied by a disavowal of ownership - "I don't own any of this stuff I'm giving away!" - plastered in the description like sheep's blood on the door.) The jump from unauthorized reproductions to hacking into phones is not enormous. The prevailing sentiment remains the same: if it exists in a digital format, it belongs to everyone.

Oddly, calling this theft out comes across as stodgy and schoolmarmish. The RIAA's fundamental complaint about Napster - namely, people who make a good/service deserve compensation for its consumption - is perfectly valid, but their "Piracy is a Crime" campaign* was designed by the same creative team that brought us Poochie. South Park depicted musicians who spoke out against file-sharing as peevish, spoiled crybabies. Asking to adhere to basic economic principles marked you as a fogey who refused to accept the way the world works. Overlooked in this Robin Hood posturing is that it's not always evil corporations who are having their work pilfered, and it's rarely said corporations who suffer. The middlemen, the nascent writers, musicians, and artists, are the ones being squeezed. If your work is good, it'll be stolen, and if you're lucky, loosely attributed to you.

The effects of this "I want it therefore I deserve it" toddler mentality are far-reaching and odious. We're living in an age where multimillionaires can auction off unpaid internships with straight faces. Tweets are aggregated for ad revenue, or straight up stolen. Journalists close ranks around proven plagiarists. And once in a while, people go so far as to hack nude pictures off celebrities' phones.

It's hard to propose any solutions to an issue that boils down to "stealing is wrong." The problem is not nuanced, just boring. When the victims are indirect and one's contribution to the problem feels like a drop in the bucket it's easy to dismiss any twinge of guilt as screen glare. This cause needs its own Iron Eyes Cody, or Scruff McGruff. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch NFL highlights on Vimeo.

*To borrow another quote from Sideshow Bob, "yes, I recognize the irony in [using unauthorized videos] in order to decry [them.]"