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Why Copyright and Privacy will be Battlefields

January 23, 2012

Don’t think that what we’re seeing with the proposed U.S. internet legislation called SOPA and PIPA is a onetime phenomenon – a battle that might be won or lost.

Discussions and battles on Copyright and Intellectual Property will be a main ground for conflicts and debate in the coming decades.

Another main area for long time discussions will be Privacy.

Together these two topics might become more important to discuss than any other subject in our society in the coming years.

There are good reasons for this as tons of new situations related to them will emerge while information technology is advancing.

For IP the importance depends on the fact that everything in our world is becoming gradually more defined by information and less by material properties, eventually possibly even humans.

The need for debate on Privacy on the other hand will grow as it will be gradually easier to paralyze society with small means when everything becomes more dependent on information technology. This risk will create need for more sophisticated surveillance and monitoring, potentially threatening our privacy.

In a way IP and Privacy are in themselves related to the two basic values that I discussed here – respect for every (human) consciousness and respect for knowledge – art, literature, music, science and technology.

The first one – respect for another consciousness – has its origins in thousands of years of human civilization and beyond. It’s a spiritual value that we have developed and which has turned out to be fundamental for building a society where people can live in peace together. In Christianity it is expressed through the Golden Rule: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”, but it can of course be found also in other contexts.

The second value – respect for knowledge – has grown out of experience of the importance of knowledge for humanity. Knowledge is the basis on which we are able to offer gradually better conditions for all humans to live in, and hopefully in a longer perspective also for nature and for everything living in the universe.

These values are old and easy for most of us to agree upon.

Rules on IP and Privacy are not that old, and because they are also more specific they are still being developed, changing with the context in which they are applied. Consequently they also need to be discussed.

This is why, in one sense, you could say that these concepts have barely been started.

Protection of IP has until now been ensured by quite simple rules of copyright and patents. We have seen how these rules have been questioned in the last decades as a result of the possibilities of unlimited copying being made possible with digital technology and wide spread internet communication.

Copying and sjharing is of course a reality that we will have to live with, and it will become gradually more difficult as everything we consume will at an increasing extent be based on digital information which might be easily copied and shared.

It’s easy to see advantages both with very low and very high levels of copyright protection. A low level makes it easy to share information to lots of individuals at low cost while a high level is an incentive for creating new knowledge.

Just to put it in an extreme perspective it might be worth thinking of a situation when human consciousness can be defined in terms of digital information.

Not everybody agree that this will ever be possible, but let’s just assume it will. The question is then how important it will be to protect that information from being copied and shared.

Of course it’s difficult to imagine the future context in which this would be a reality, and how the society and the world would look like at that point. But let’s imagine it’s a world where we have learned to manage giant amounts of information and also giant numbers of individual pieces of consciousness living in peace together.

The question is then if we in such a context could see sharing of the information that holds a consciousness as a possibility or a threat.

I believe that the answer is not easy, and I’ll leave the discussion by that, indicating that we need to have in mind that protection of intellectual property will be something that we will need to elaborate continuously and with care for many years to come.

The topic of Privacy might become even more delicate. Basically different levels of Privacy are what make the difference between utopia and dystopia in science fiction movies and other depictions of future societies.

Already today many of the systems in society are connected to the internet in one way or another, and gradually vital public functions such as power grids, fresh water supply, air and train control etc are becoming vulnerable to attacks from malware.

The Stuxnet worm 2010 made it obvious that very high levels of sophistication are possible in designing malware to attack distant but extremely well defined targets. And that’s just the beginning.

Gradually our society will be more and more dependent on connected computer controlled systems so complex that we might not even be able to take care of their maintenance without using other advanced computerized systems.

Extending this scenario to genetics and nanotechnology, with risks ranging from bio engineered viruses for destructive purposes to self replicating nanobots going awry, it becomes obvious that increasing intelligent surveillance will be more and more important. And this surveillance will at an increasing extent be made not by humans but by intelligent systems.

One way to understand this type of technology is to look at how banks and financial institutions continuously monitor use of for example credit cards to detect unusual actions today. These systems are very powerful and successful in detecting fraud, and still they are just the beginning of what we will have to develop to protect society.

Obviously this kind of surveillance will be a potential threat against privacy. It’s not difficult to imagine a situation where an automatic, intelligent system monitors every step we take.

And it’s of course of fundamental importance that we find ways to perform an extremely efficient monitoring of dangerous activities that could put society at risk, without compromising individual privacy.

And this will be possible only by keeping the debate on privacy strong and vital, as it is today, without ever giving way to easy solutions.

I believe it’s extremely important for everyone to keep these two discussions in mind – on how protection of intellectual property should be designed and on how we can guarantee privacy while protecting society through efficient surveillance – whenever we get into discussions on technology development.

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