Tuesday, October 6, 2009

About Human Rights and About Human Wrongs

Fundamental Human Right. It's a phrase we use a lot, we who posture intellectually. It is one of those things - like 'illegal war' or 'monstrous tyrant' that we use as an axiom, assuming that somewhere, at some point, someone has performed the logical contortions necessary to demonstrate its validity. We tend to assume that there is someone somewhere who could specify which particular law it was that a war broke. We assume that someone has checked off the behaviours of a dictator against a checklist of monstrosity. The result is that we throw about our pre-assumed rhetoric, hoping to convince others, when in fact we are fighting with blunted swords - their blades deadened by the simple fact that our arguments rest on things unshared.

So it is with fundamental human rights. I might say, for example, that access to the internet is a fundamental human right: you might adequately counter that it isn't - and there we would be, staring at each other across the barricades of assumption as the wheels of legislation turn without us.

Instead then, let's ask what a fundamental human right actually is and see where that gets us.

Firstly: Fundamental to what? I think we can safely ignore for the moment the idea that humans have been gifted any intrinsic rights by a deity or by their innate dignity or even by their ability to suffer - if only because there are too many different ideas on this for us to agree. Instead, let's work from the most basic moral axiom going: that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated.

If we accept this as a founding principle, then it follows that a good society would be one that protects individuals from suffering fates they would not wish to, of necessity by acting punitively against those who seek to cause such suffering. We do, of course, have a contradiction already, in that we would not wish to be punitively acted against ourselves, however, the benefit of acting as a society is the ability of societies to assess the relative merits of contradictory moral acts. We would accept that some immoral punitive action is justified when weighed against the broader moral benefits they cause. While we have now moved away from our nice basic principle, it is not too great a leap to a new one: that a good society, when faced with conflicting options, chooses to act in the way that least causes individuals to suffer fates they would not wish too.

With such a society established, we might begin writing basic rules of thumb in order to help define the nature of fates that individuals would not wish to suffer. The first (and one might have thought the most obvious) of these is the 6th commandment: Thou shalt not murder. Very few of us wish to be murdered. It seems entirely correct that anyone wishing to murder should be prevented from doing so and that anyone who has murdered should be prevented from doing so again. It seems entirely accurate to say that the urge to murder goes against the most basic assumptions underpinning any good society and that not being murdered is the least we can expect from any organised body of humans. Not being murdered is, in fact, fundamental to our experience of being humans among humans. It is a Fundamental Human Right.

The key thing about this is not that the right to continue living is divinely apportioned or intrinsic to our dignity or self-evidently apparent. It is that it can be deduced logically and that we can choose to adopt it (or otherwise) based on our conception of a good society. A right is not divine, nor is it intrinsic - it is better than that: it is an aspiration that is consciously declared. When we adopt something as a fundamental human right we make a statement about the world we wish to live in, we do not appeal to any absolute, we aspire to something greater than our current condition and challenge ourselves to do our aspiration justice.

So now, when I say that access to the internet is a Fundamental Human Right, do not misunderstand me. I don't say so lightly. It is not a position I have adopted because it looks good on a petition, or because I know it will get a cheer from people who already agree with me. I say it because, right now, sat at my computer, I am more than I was when I was in the kitchen. Ask me a question about anything within the realm of human knowledge and, chances are, I will be able to give you an answer in a few minutes or less. Ask me to survey distant kingdoms from space, ask me to deliver a lengthy message of salvation to a prophet almost anywhere on the planet, ask me what something looks like, where anywhere is, ask me anything. Ask me who dissents from the position of my government and what they say. Ask me where the demonstrators are assembling. Ask me who is being persecuted, and what village has been raided and where it looked like they were being taken...

I say it too because, tomorrow I may wish to make art of some kind and key to the creation of art is an appreciation of other art. On the internet I can find free or inexpensive tools able to perform tasks that would have required my parents to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds merely to access. I can immerse myself in the art of others, be influenced by it, use these tools to create art of my own and then, at almost no cost, I can distribute the fruits of my labours to the four corners of the world.

I want a society where these things are available to everyone as readily as they are to me. I believe firmly that such a society would be more free, would be less at risk from tyranny and would have more beautiful things in it. It is a society that I am proud to aspire to, and one for which universal, high-speed internet access is fundamental. And believing these things, as I do, I consider internet access to be a fundamental human right.

Now, you'll remember that earlier we acknowledged that societies sometimes have to break moral principles in order to protect themselves against greater moral wrongs. We saw how in certain cases a moral judgement had to be made that balanced the harm done to some against the harm done to a greater number of others. The argument currently circulating about the music industry and the business secretary's attempt to pass a law removing internet access from those who persistently share files is such a case.

On the one side we have a law that would breach what I consider to be a fundamental right. On the other we have an industry that, due to the expense of recording, manufacturing and distributing records and CDs was once able to make and sell a scarce resource at a high cost - but which now finds the value of its product collapsing as the internet replaces expensive processes with cheap ones. This industry (and several of its high-profile employees) believes that a contributory factor to its decline is the sharing of music files and that removing the right to internet access from those who persistently do so will halt said decline. I don't believe it will, but even if you do, you still find yourself facing a choice. Either you support a measure that may or may not prolong the profitability of an industry at the expense of declaring the right to internet access conditional and not fundamental - thus crushing much of its potential as a transformative, liberating technology or you decide that yes, indeed, universal access to the internet is more important than the right to control the not-for-profit reproduction of your intellectual property.

It is not an easy choice, but it comes down to which society you'd prefer to live in. The one we lived in ten years ago when you heard less recorded music and when money you spent on it ended up in the hands of large record companies and the tiny minority of musicians they chose to make financially viable (while most made little or no money) - or the one you could live in soon, where there is more music than you know what to do with and any money you choose to spend on it goes directly to the musicians you choose to reward (while most make little or no money) and where, in addition, all the information of the world is right there, inalienably, at your fingertips.

I think it's a fundamental human right. I think if you want to take one of those away you need a damn good reason, a better reason than my copyright, a better reason than the collapse of some companies with a redundant business model and a much better reason than the dwindling salaries of those who signed the Air Statement.

The times they are a-changing, boys and girls, they can change for the better if we make them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Line In Sand

Via @Akirathedon
Read his full post at: http://www.akirathedon.com/2009/09/f-the-fac/
I'm excerpting this letter because it really should be spat on by as many people as possible:

On September 24th a very special meeting took place at Air Studios in London. It was an unprecedented gathering of artists who all met in the spirit of collaboration and with the aim of discussing the very challenging issue of file-sharing and how it affects the lives of so many artists and all the people that support them in creating the music that we all know and love.

The statement below is the result of that meeting…

The Air Statement:

We the undersigned wish to express our support for Lily Allen in her campaign to alert music lovers to the threat that illegal downloading presents to our industry and to condemn the vitriol that has been directed at her in recent days.

Our meeting also voted overwhelmingly to support a three-strike sanction on those who persistently download illegal files, sanctions to consist of a warning letter, a stronger warning letter and a final sanction of the restriction of the infringer’s bandwidth to a level which would render file-sharing of media files impractical while leaving basic email and web access functional.


Tim Rice-Oxley (Keane)
Jamie Turner
Adriano Buffone (Raygun)
Allan Bradbury
Helienne Lindvall
Tony Crean
Andrew Laidlaw (Luck Soul)
Isard Haasakker
Tony Morrelli (The Fire Escapes)
Jean-Baptiste Pilon (The Fire Escapes)
Mark Headley (The Fire Escapes)
Hal Ritson (The Young Punx)
Billy Bragg
Ben Ward
Karl Harrison
Howard Jones
Tjinder Singh (Cornershop)
Phil Simpson
Steve Jones
John Reynolds
Sandie Shaw (via phone)
David Rowntree (Blur)
Ed O’Brien (Radiohead)
Alan Sharland (The Hoosiers)
Martin Skarendahl (The Hoosiers)
Steven Hogarth (Marillion)
Mark Kelly (Marillion)
Guy Chambers
Patrick Wolf
Sam Duckworth (Get Cape Wear Cape Fly)
Jamie Allen
Toby Sebastian
James Kelly
Beryl Marsden
George Jones
Ross Millard (The Futureheads)
Stax Dempsey
Rona Sentinar
Fran Healy (Travis)
Karl Addy
Nathan Taylor (The Young Punx)
Josh Allegro
Ali Howard (Lucky Soul)
David Arnold
Lucy Pullin (The Fire Escapes)
Annie Lennox (via phone)
Lily Allen (Not a Member of the FAC)
George Michael
Nick Mason (Pink Floyd)

Signed After the meeting;

The Music Producers Guild
John B
Claudia Brucken (Propaganda)
Rick Wilde

The Air Statement can be found on our website www.featuredartistscoalition.com

We also have two fantastic events coming up for artists. See the events section of our home page for more info.

Taste that? In the back of your mouth? Yeah, that'll be the little bit of vomit that it's impossible to keep down when you speculate about the gall of a bunch of no-account indie pricks (and one or two of my favourite singers, grown tragically anachronistic) supporting a 'three strikes' law against filesharing. That anyone, anywhere could think it even slightly acceptable to remove from 7 million people the right to participate in one of the most incandescently transformative, intelligence squaring technologies ever invented in order to briefly prop up a rotten, vacuous industry that is doomed anyway for basic economic reasons while continuing to funnel the money of recession-hit teenagers to Lily Allen - that anyone could support such a backward, ludicrous and neophobe idea is beyond me. That people who call themselves artists can do so makes me want to drown them all in their own mucus and spend a decade inventing transhumanist consciousness-uploading just so as I can send them all to a special virtual hell.

Fuck the FAC, fuck you if you agree with them, and fuck the FAC again. There is a war coming. Pick a side.