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A Tale of Two Protests

On the night of October 27th, a group of activists – Free Culture @ NYU – took to the mean streets of New York City to protest the presence of DRM (digital rights management) technology on CDs sold by Sony BMG or EMI. According to the protest website:

We also met plenty of consumers who were shocked, dismayed, and saddened by the news that the CDs that they had just bought probably won’t work on their computer or iPod. We even gave some help to people who complained about CDs not working on their computers. We also got into Virgin and deposited some flyers around the store. It was a great event, everyone had a great time despite getting a bit cold at the end.

The protest was covered by Slyck.com, p2pnet.net and other anti-DRM weblogs. Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, pointed that blog’s readers to the photoset of protest photos on Flickr. As of 12:18 EST on October 31, 2005, FLickr tells me the photoset has been 2802 times. (That number will likely rise as West Coast BoingBoingers wake up and check their RSS feeds.)

The photo set inspired me to think about the recent history of political protest in the United States: civil rights in the 1950s, feminism in the 1960s, protests to end the Vietnam War in the 1970s, to end apartheid in the 1980s, the Million Man March in the 1990s, the great anti-DRM marches of the new millenium. As I thought about the dozens of causes more likely to inspire me to march than digital rights management, Darfur leapt to the front of my list. And that led me, through Sokari Ekine’s Black Looks blog, to this photo series on Flickr.

On September 29th, hundreds of Sudanese refugees began protesting outside UNHCR offices in Cairo, Egypt. The refugees, who had fled violence in Darfur, were given “blanket temporary refugee” status, which means they’re ineligible to be resettled to a third country – they receive little humanitarian assistance and are deeply concerned about being forcibly returned to Darfur. Damanga.org outlines some of the demands of the refugees, who remained camped outside the UNHCR offices for more than three weeks:

1) We refuse to return voluntarily to Darfur because of the lack of security that the region is still experiencing.

2) We also refuse to resettle permanently in Egypt because cooperation between the governments of Egypt and Sudan has made our lives here difficult.

3) We refuse the random, unjustified arrest of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, many of whom are detained without charges filed or access to legal protection.

Pambazuka News reports that the protest now involves 1,200 refugees. One refugee told the Pambazuka reporter, ““We will wait here, we will die here. We have no other place to go.”

The Flickr photo series, linked to by Pambazuka and Black Looks, features seventeen photos of the protest camp, the list of demands, and the banners held up to protest the murder of Sudanese refugees in Egypt.

As of 12:43 on October 31, 2005, the Flickr photo set had been viewed 81 times.

As tempting as it is to make fun of NYU students for fighting for their “right” to purchase DRM-free music, I’m glad that they’re protesting something, even if the wrong they’ve chosen to right comes in at #23,273 on my personal “things worth fighting for” list. It’s the amplification effect that bothers me more. Why is one photo set featured on BoingBoing and the other isn’t?

Some possible answers:

– The folks at BoingBoing probably don’t know anything about the Cairo protests. I try to follow this issue, but I didn’t know about this protest until catching Sokari’s bookmark. While there are a lot of BoingBoing readers in the East Village of NYC, there are fewer in Cairo, and they may not yet have brought the issue to their attention.

– BoingBoing author Cory Doctorow is deeply committed to the issue of free culture, follows the movement closely and reports on this issue on his group blog, much the same way I write about African politics here. It’s his perogative to follow the issues he’s passionate about. And BoingBoing does some humanitarian coverage, providing excellent information on the Southeast Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters.

– BoingBoing readers may well be more concerned with DRM than with refugee issues in Northern Africa. BoingBoing is a private business – it maintains a huge readership by covering topics of interest to its readers, and filtering out other topics. Perhaps BoingBoing is more useful to its audience by covering DRM protests and not human rights ones.

It’s this last point I’m most interested in. I’ve been writing for the past two years about “problems” with media attention – most notably, the problem that events involving Africa get a whole lot less attention than those involving Iraq, Israel, Europe and the US. Jay Rosen (shrewdly, helpfully, kindly) pointed out a hole in my argument when I visited with him several weeks back at a conference in Chicago. While I can document how little coverage Africa gets in relation to Iraq, I haven’t successfully made the argument for why Africa deserves more coverage.

Jay argues that media – whether cable channel, newspaper or blog – serve a polis. This means that they’re obligated to do more than creating compelling content and selling ads – they’re obligated to inform their readers about issues that help them make decisions as citizens. It makes sense that community newspapers cover local news more thoroughly than international news – their audience needs to be informed about local issues to vote in local elections, protest local injustices and mobilize to right local wrongs.

I can complain that papers like the New York Times don’t cover Africa enough, but I have to make the argument that the issues in Africa are germane to the readership of the Times. It’s possible to make the same argument that the readers of BoingBoing are more concerned, and more likely to act, on issues surrounding DRM than they are about Sudanese refugees: more BoingBoing readers have iPods than have people they care about in refugee camps. In this sense, BoingBoing and the Times may well be serving their readers better than I would if I controlled their editorial agenda.

My problem with this argument is this: in an increasingly globalized world, the distant gets more local everyday. The rise of militant Islam in Central Asia was pretty distant to most Americans until September 11th, when it suddenly became profoundly local. Failed or failing states in Africa might remain very distant to Americans… or they might not, if Somalilia or Côte d’Ivoire emerge as global arms bazarrs in the absence of a functioning state. Pollution in China seems pretty distant until it starts affecting air quality in LA, at which point it’s very local.

Is localism, both of journalism and of dissent, a luxury we can’t afford in a global age? Is it okay for us to know about the arguments against DRM, but not about the arguments against refugee repatriation?

In other words, is it fair for me to make fun of the guy holding the green sign for fighting the RIAA rather than fighting for people who really need someone to march in the streets of New York on their behalf?

26 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Protests”

  1. There’s another, related, possible explanation, Ethan: the anti-DRM protestors very likely feel as if they have a chance of changing the conditions they oppose, whereas problems in Africa are, by and large, seen as too big for “regular people” to do anything about. Whether or not it’s true is secondary to whether it’s *perceived* to be true, and the intractability of Africa’s problems is very much a core element of the popular discourse about the continent.

    (I’m reminded of an early line in Bruce Sterling’s ISLANDS IN THE NET, referring to the “Worldrun” sim-planet computer game: “Africa was a mess. Africa was always a mess.”)

    Layered onto this reason is the degree to which the source of the problem can be identified. Where’s the bad guy? The RIAA makes a handy bad guy because, well, they’re pretty venal and short-sighted. But problems in Africa have so many different sources it’s hard to untangle them all. I mean, I really can’t see protestors chanting,

    “hey hey, ho ho, inappropriate pressure for rapid market reforms from international finance organizations coupled with historically corrupt governments, ethnic conflict enhanced by resource competition, and an overall trend towards environmental destruction leading to famine and war has got to go!”

  2. You’re right, Jamais – it would be better as an acronym. Hey hey, ho ho, IPFRMRFIFOCUHGECEBRCAAOTTEDLTFAW has got to go…

    Scale is clearly an issue. The efforts that seem to be succeeding – at least in attracting attention – in Darfur are student efforts that are working on very specific targets – divestment, and raising funds that can support security efforts in the camps. While the issues are huge, there are ways to approach them that are far more manageable.

    What worries me, I guess, is that a strategy of fixing problems that seem fixable probably misses most of the really big, really important problems. This doesn’t deny the truth that activists need to chop problems into solveable, bite-sized pieces, but I do feel that activists need to consider taking on the big problems, and not writing off entire continents because they’re so difficult to engage with…

  3. BoingBoing are also at the forefont of the campaign to put a pro-poor development agenda at the centre of the UN World Intellectual Property Organization. Your edges certainly meet.

    If you titled the Cairo demo “Illegal immigrants at the gates of Europe” you would get bucketloads of attention. Pick your spin.


  4. I think the fact that these people cared enough to go out and protest against DRM suggests that there is something deeper and more important at stake, of which you may not be aware. If you want a quick education on DRM and the problems with it, I suggest you check out the EFF’s paper on Fair Use and DRM, and perhaps the slightly alarmist essay by Richard Stallman on The Right To Read. Also check out the student organization Free Culture @ NYU is a part of, FreeCulture.org, and the book that inspired it, Free Culture. As we move into an information economy, questions of what people are allowed/able to do with information become critical to the future of our society.

    Besides, while DRM may be over-covered on BoingBoing, it is under-covered in the mainstream media, and I think it is important to have blogs like BoingBoing which attempt to rectify that.

  5. Hi Ethan,

    Those NYU students are an easy target ;) But the overall point that we should be fighting against injustice in Africa rather than techie trivialities in North America, that falls into the trap (in my opinion) of making the following assumptions:

    – The existing ways of fighting for those causes, are the only ones worth using (in other words, TV, newspapers and radio provide enough coverage for issues).

    – Today’s technology is what we’ll be using in future, and new stuff is just pointless gadget-wanking (in other words, tech that’s incredibly new and hard to imagine using now, will not turn into the day-to-day for millions of people in ten years time).

    – Technology doesn’t affect the developing world (overlooking the creation of new communication systems like Skype, RSS, and the issues created by biopiracy, drug patenting, and IP maximalism like the TRIPS accord)

    in my opinion, all these are fallacies. Technology *does* become widely used, it does spread to the developing world, and stupid tech laws made here are often pushed to the developing world if we don’t *all* work together to stop them.

    The fact that Pambazuka and Black Looks *can* use Flickr to post photos is a major argument that we do need to pay attention to high tech issues and how technology can be used.


  6. To those who understand the ramifications of peak oil, even millions of war dead are insignificant by comparison to the billions who can’t afford food or heat without *cheap* fossil fuels, which will be gone forever in the next five years.

  7. DAvek, you’re right to point out that BoingBoing is good on IP issues and is trying to get a fair shake for the poor at WIPO. I think Cory’s doing a good job of taking aim at those issues, and I agree there are lots of IP issues that are critical to developing nations. My beef here wasn’t really with BoingBoing – it was more with the blogosphere’s tendency to amplify some topics and ignore others. I think the BoingBoing crowd, generally speaking, does a terrific job of educating its readership about social issues the authors think are important. They just happened to link to something that pissed me off, hence their use as an example in my post.

    Nelson, I appreciate the attempt to educate me on DRM issues. I’m pretty well acquainted with Lessig’s work, as he used to teach at the research center where I’m a fellow, and we’re friends. Indeed, I’ve co-taught a class at Harvard Law School that’s focused on intellectual property rights in the developing world. Perhaps I didn’t look closely enough, but the kids from NYU didn’t appear to be marching in favor of compulsory licensing of AIDS drugs or the right to freely copy physics textbooks. Marching for the right to copy music to your iPod is, as I mentioned, better than not protesting at all, but not real high on my list of priorities.

    Justin, my recent background is in information technology and international development – I just finished five years running an organization (Geekcorps) that worked on tech transfer to the developing world. So the argument that Skype/Flickr/blogging are important for the developing world is one I’m very sympathetic to. And, if push comes to shove, I could be convinced that lobbying for DRM-free music might have some positive implications for the developing world. My unease with the amplification of the DRM protest is really a reflection of a drum I’ve been beating for a while – the blogosphere is really good at amplifying tech stories, and much less good at amplifying stories about international politics. (A string of comments from users I haven’t seen before is an interesting confirmation of this theory – write on DRM and the traffic will come… :-)

  8. My apologies… if I’d looked more carefully at your blogroll, I would have realized that you must be pretty well informed.

    I assure you that at least some of the people in Free Culture @ NYU are interested in generic drugs and free physics textbooks as well. However, if the goal is to talk about DRM, there are music CDs coming out today that people are buying, while DRM’d physics textbooks are yet to become popular (although they are on the horizon). While DRM may only be on music CDs today, it may soon cover just about everything. That would be bad, especially if it happened without any public debate because the people were uninformed.

    Also, sometimes we have to approach the issues in the ways that will reach the public best, even if music CDs aren’t vital to the future of our country.

    That said, I agree with your point that the blogosphere is better at amplifying stories about technology than stories about Africa. I could argue that this is justified, since the blogosphere relies on digital technology for its very existence, but it’s undeniable that stories about the developing world need to be told as well. I just had a knee-jerk reaction against your implication that what my friends and I are working on is unimportant.

  9. Not unimportant, Nelson, just not what I’d prioritize as an issue, personally. And again, my beef is more with the blogosphere than with y’all…

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  11. Just to be very clear – while I’m amused by Jorn’s headline on Robotwisdom linking to this post (and I always appreciate it when he links to me), my intention a) wasn’t to attack BoingBoing for racism or b) to attack BoingBoing, as much as I wanted to point out the blogosphere’s tendency, as a whole, to link to certain kinds of stories and ignore others.

  12. I’ve noticed Flickr playing an important role in providing a place where this kind of imagery can be shared, like this posting about the exploitation and abuse of Morrocan immigrants. People in the US have so few direct connections or direct access to other people around the world, it isn’t surprising that they don’t pay attention. Television and newspapers rarely communicate the kinds of personal connections that need to happen for people to care.

    But injustices are being prolmulgated at all levels of society: from the business executives who want to take your rights and sell them back to you to the people who are simply selling other people (into slavery, prostitution, or whatever). We need people working against all of these forms of oppression. But the opposition is generally well funded whereas we are not. With governments in the pockets of the wealthy corporations, there’s no-one looking out for the little guy.

    I think the larger issue is the lack of guidance and appropriate role models in deciding when we have enough (money, comfort, security, you name it). When does someone decide to quit trying to accumulate more and, instead, begin to share and use what they have to make the world a better place? With models like Bill Gates, most people seem to feel they can be out purely for themselves until they earn at least their first billion. Especially with easy credit and the whole consumerist machine telling people to buy, buy, buy.

  13. Hey, Ethan! I cover some intersection of stuff that is peronsally interesting, stuff that comes in the form of engaging blog-suggestions, stuff that is engagingly written about on the blogs and feeds I read that captures my interest, and so on. So the Africa issues I blog on relate largely to shantytowns (because I’m working on a novel about squatters), access to knowledge/access to medicine, and tehcnology for development.

    Regarding DRM — my feeling is that DRM is *the* fight for the coming decades. That’s because the DRM creates the first-ever infrastructural perogative to design systems that can enforce remote policy against a device-owner’s wishes. That moves us from a world where technology is something that can provide an assist to reformers as well as being used to quash them to one where this stuff becomes exclusively a technology of control. If the network and the PC are to be tools for universal access to human knowledge and for galvanizing collective action, they have to stay open and free.

  14. Hey Cory! Thanks for weighing in. In no way did I mean to imply in this post that you, or BoingBoing, were covering the wrong issues. The reason your site is so good (and why I read it every day, which is how I found the link I commented on) is that you guys do a great job of selecting content that fits a wide range of interests – yours, personally, and that of your readerbase.

    My comment was intended to be a general observation of a trend on the net – content about geeky issues tends to get amplified more than content on issues of global human rights or politics. I used BoingBoing as an example of a powerful amplifier because you guys happened to be how I found the DRM protest link. I thought the comparative amplification of the DRM protest versus the Darfur protest was a clear illustration of this effect that I’ve been documenting on this blog and in academic papers.

    As for the DRM argument – I guess I’m just not concerned at this point that the slippery slope leads directly from copy protection on a CD to restricting the ability to program a computer or wire a network. There are trigger points (a strong, widely supported proposal to implement some sort of “trusted computing”) that would probably get me to pick up my piece of green posterboard and march, but crippled CD’s ain’t it.

    That said, one of the reasons I don’t follow the issue as closely as I could is that folks like you do. I suspect that there’s an argument to be made that one thing blogs have allowed us to do is share responsibility for following the key political issues around the world – you watch DRM and IP and I’ll (attempt, somewhat in vain) to watch Africa. My worry is that this network we’ve collectively built amplifies some messages better than others – that this blogpost wouldn’t be 13 comments into a thread if it hadn’t mentioned both DRM and BoingBoing… :-)

  15. well, ethan, your last point is why the blogosphere ecosystem needs to continue to grow and strengthen over this network. we’re nowhere near where we have to be. but… as tagging increases and tag aggregators become more precise, mixed in with algorithms, content brands will begin to fade, as concepts will begin to bubble up across customizable, networked interfaces.

    as much as accra and boingboing are great resource brands, pretty soon we’ll all be receiving Aggregator 2.0 type experiences. and then africa and ipods can be digested together.

  16. Hi Ethan. I’m just tempted to weigh in here on the issue, since those who were protesting were good friends of mine and definitely entrenched within the same free culture movement.

    I feel very strongly about the issues that you raise: the situation in Darfur, the availability of educational materials in the (developed and non-developed) world, patents on HIV/AIDS drugs, etc. In fact, I am friends with the founders of the Darfur Action Group here at Harvard and greatly support their work.

    When it comes down to it, though, there are unfortunately so many hours in the day, and people tend to pick their battles. The Darfur Action Group here has made some great progress I know, but they don’t seem to have as much of a web presence as they could (no blog?) It could be that the techie-types tend to blog more about techie issues because when it comes down to it, the internet is still daunting for some. My friends that are deeply committed to the human rights movement are not as into technology issues, and as a result do not blog.

    I do agree that we should change this, but I don’t think that criticizing those who are fighting for technology-based issues is the way.

  17. I think the commenter above, who said a sense of helplessness about Africa’s problems may have some influence on levels of protest, was probably on target. But, as you (ie Ethan) have pointed out, the blind spot for Africa is widespread. Most people who have it are just commenting (eg blogs) or reporting, not necessarily trying to change anything directly, so a sense of helplessness shouldn’t play as big a role.

    I suspect the pattern would be the same for any less-powerful group, for instance poor people or women, as well as Africans. Until we human beings recognize that we’re hardwired to respond to power, and use our brains to behave more intelligently, I’m not sure there’s much hope for real improvement.

  18. As a member of Free Culture @ NYU, I wanted to write in and offer up my thoughts about this whole debate.

    I think Elizabeth has a good point – the tech nature of the blogpshere tends to select those who are interested in technology. Those who are interested in technology in turn focus on issues in technology, DRM being, in my opinion, one of the most prominent issues in technology right now. It is then not surprising that BoingBoing, despite its admitted open focus (that is, A directory of wonderful things) tends to focus on issues in technology, and consequentially posts articles on DRM.

    A flaw of Ethan’s complaint is that it relies on the assumption of the existence of an objective hierarchy of causes. Ranking causes can lead to some absurd consequences — how do we decide which is more important, the lives of the Darfur refugees or North Koreans? Does it depend on the injustices they’ve suffered? And can we not care about any other causes until the problems of the Darfurians are solved? But what about their civil rights issues after they hopefully repatriated? And then what about civil rights violations in America? There aren’t any answers to these questions, and that’s my point — deciding on whose clause is more important is an intensely personal and subjective choice. In my opinion, pretending like there’s some objective barometer for causes that can be easily discerned is a bit naive.

    Granted, DRM isn’t dealing with people’s lives and citizenship, but it is a cause, and when people like Cory choose to support it, they shouldn’t be chastised for not considering about causes they may have never heard about. Making sure people know about causes they wouldn’t ordinarily care about isn’t the responsibility of the ostensibly ignorant people themselves, it is the responsibility of people who care about those causes. If someone wishes to show up at a Darfur protest and ignore news about DRM or vice versa, thats their prerogative. I can try and talk them out of it through publicizing my cause, but ultimately, it is their decision. Admittedly, the blog world may not be conducive for disseminating issues related to human rights, and hopefully that will change, but placing the blame on bloggers and protesters who have no involvement or previous knowledge of such topics is no way to make progress.

    I wonder if those involved in relieving the Darfur situation really care all that much about the exposure they are or aren’t getting in the blogsphere. You make it seem like Free Culture @ NYU’s protest got both national-media attention and blog attention, which at the moment, it has not. We’ve gotten a couple thousand hits a day from the BoingBoing and Slyck.com posts. Now compare that to the type of press that an issue about Darfur might get. I’m guessing its mostly print and traditional media exposure. And even if Darfur doesn’t get that print exposure, what do you think the Darfur supporters care more about, a BoingBoing link, or a NYTimes article? Its not that a BoingBoing link doesn’t have its benefits — its just that the recipients of those benefits are very few members of a specific community.

    In the end, I think the real issue lays in the perceived editorial decisions of BoingBoing, and in general, the blog community. Ethan seems to be assuming that blogs should cover causes that he finds important, and I totally agree with him. Blogs should cover the causes that people find important, and this is where we find the real power of the medium, because there is nothing preventing anybody from writing whatever they want, and getting it out to an audience. Just because a particular blog doesn’t pickup a particular issue is no reason to discredit the causes it does pick up. Conversely, there’s no reason to think that the causes it doesn’t pick up aren’t legitimate – the choice is simply another editorial decision that the blogger has every right to make.

    And one more thing, what would you rather have those people who care about DRM and fair use do? Sit back and watch record companies steam roll our fair use rights for the sake of their quarterly earnings? Should everyone simply silence their political leanings until situations like the Darfur one are solved? I actually do pro-bono web development work for various African non-profits. My goals relating to a free culture are not incompatible with my sympathy and efforts for a world away from me, and they shouldn’t have to be. Simply because I’m willing to sacrifice my free time to organize a demonstration related to a topic in technology that I feel fervently about doesn’t mean I can’t care about the lives of others who happen to be less fortunate. Insinuating that the two passions are incompatible is myopic and missing the point of both efforts.

  19. I was struck by what fred benerson had to say – though, perhaps like other bloggers he seems to find odd hours to communicate – interest in one social/political cause does not preclude interest in others; more often than not diverse interests exist side by side and even enhance each other ( e.g. his work for African web sites.). On the big issue – is globalization making purely “local issues” less and less releveant? – a famous speaker of the house in the not too distant past said “all politics are local”. When you are talking about mobilizing political will to effect change, you still are going to have to deal with truly local issues and imagining cases where they might merge – Somalia becoming an arms bazar – doesn’t seem to me very helpful here.

  20. Perhaps I’m being needlessly simplistic, but it seems that some of the commenters have made this issue needlessly complex.

    – Of course it’s fair to make fun of the guy with the green sign. Notwithstanding the existence of some ‘objective hierarchy of causes’, it’s entirely fair to subjectively believe that the plight of refugees from a genocide is more important than not being able to copy music from a CD to my iPod.

    As has been said, we choose our battles, as we choose our interests and passions.

    The blogosphere is made up of people with various interests. If more people are interested in DRM than African refugees, we’ll see more blogospheric activity.

    Similarly, TV Guide has a wider readership than the Economist, which sells more copies than Africa magazine… in the United States.

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