When history looks back on the last two decades, what will it see? Will it see the World Trade Center collapsing, and the subsequent activation of the superpower of our times? Probably not. Will it see a generation finally and shockingly realise that its insatiable greed is powerful enough to alter its entire world? Perhaps a bit more plausible. But for all that has happened over the last two decades, one innovation stands head and shoulders above the rest. The creation of a World Wide Web.
The internet has given us the ability to share and find almost any information at the touch of a button. We can freely communicate with just about anyone, anywhere on the planet with ease. And there’s an almost limitless range of innovative software and sites to make everything from planning a trip to playing a game of scrabble with grandma a piece of cake. But that’s just today. That’s just the result of a decade’s innovations and ideas. Where will we be in a century? A millennia? Provided humanity can survive that long, these last two decades will undoubtedly be remembered as the first years of the greatest revolution since the wheel (no pun intended).
And for the first time, the internet is playing a serious role in Australian politics. The fact that this is due to an unmentioned bipartisanship on effectively all other major issues is irrelevant. For the first time ever, the country is seriously debating how important the internet really is, and just how much government money should go into developing infrastructure for the future.
However, in all of the reasoned debate, there has been a white elephant sitting quietly in the room. Internet piracy.
It has been estimated that 2.8 million Australians currently download music illegally off the web. More than 1 billion songs are illegally downloaded every year by Australians, and 28 per cent of all software deployed in the country annually is illegal. Even more disturbingly, 50 per cent of 14-24 year olds do not believe that illegal file sharing is stealing.
But as shocking as they are, these are just numbers. What is the cause of these confronting figures?
Perhaps it comes down to our culture’s lack of patience. Thanks to McDonalds, we don’t need to wait for our food. Thanks to the internet, we don’t need to wait for communication, entertainment or information. We are culture that struggles to wait patiently, and perhaps Pirate Bay may at times simply be the easiest option.
But the danger of piracy lies in how ingrained it has become in our social conscience. In many ways the figures above, collected in official surveys, are misleading. From my younger age group I know no one who does not use BitTorrent to download music. It’s the norm. On the other hand, I know many people who have thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of illegal programs on their PCs. People just don’t feel guilty about this. Perhaps intellectually they may associate it with stealing (and apparently 50 per cent won’t even do that much) but when it comes to our feelings and actions, there is not even a hint of guilt.
When challenged, there are many justifications. Some say that it’s like stealing from a store, only to have the product re-appear. I would never buy the program, so owning an illegal copy doesn’t hurt anyone. Others justify it on try-before-you-buy grounds, though statistics clearly show that those who try very rarely bother to buy, simply for the sake of legality. Still others feel that they have been treated unfairly by large companies, who sell music and games at exorbitant prices. They are simply registering their own personal protest vote.
But irrespective of these moral loopholes, the fact is the next generation is growing up in a world where this behaviour is perfectly normal. Ten-year-old kids jail-break their iPods, and there is no one telling them that this is morally wrong. Sure, it’s illegal, but not wrong. They don’t know the hours of work that go into the games they play, nor do they know of the programmers, the salespeople, the developers or the artists who worked full time developing that product, and who depend on the revenue for their income. They don’t know this. We do. But what can we do about it?
And that question really is a tough one. Bigger, more confronting advertising campaigns? How about a ground-up approach where teachers and parents actually discuss these issues, rather than letting children figure it out for themselves? The lack of real action on this issue reflects a growing cultural trend: it’s not just children downloading illegal music, it’s often adults as well. This problem is not just a part of the natural rebellion of youth, it is increasingly becoming more and more a part of the wider culture.
Whatever action is taken, there is one thing that the government must be very wary of. And that is increasing home internet speeds. Currently, the only real limit to young people downloading material is the speed of their connection. While there are undoubtedly benefits to faster internet speeds, it is astounding that the issue of piracy has barely received a mention.