OR How piracy is the greatest spreader of culture in history
I am currently in teeming and steamy Hanoi, surely one of the greatest cities in the world, having taken the epic sleeper train up from Da Nang in central Vietnam. Yesterday I lighted on an old quarter bookstore (not more than a table on the street) with a very shrewd and discerning selection of English language books. There I found a copy of Jonathan Neale’s excellent “People’s History of the Vietnam War“. Astutely the old lady running the store suggested to me Graham Greene’s classic “The Quiet American” to go with it, but I had just finished reading it. Glancing at Jonathan’s history, the misspelt cover pages and scanned text showed me it was a pirate copy, which I’m sure would be a great delight to the author, even more if it was in Vietnamese. I couldn’t check that yet. This is not an article to discuss the pros and cons of copyright protection so I will simply state that I consider file-sharing to be the most vital disseminator of culture in the world. My own use of it is fairly prolific, though probably not by ths standards of teenagers I know. Torrents found through pirate bay furnish our fortnightly film club of deeply obscure art movies, and the magnificant aaaaarg.org gives me more serious food-for-thought reading matter than I can ever get through, and helps impoverished doctoral students the world over. Downloading from spotify and youtube allows me to consume music on my smartphone whenever I travel. This activity is made more fun by the ferociously concerted attempts of a few corporations to alter the very nature of the internet in order to protect their sadly outdated business models. The resulting game of cat and mouse is frequently absurdly unequal, like watching repeated episodes of Tom and Jerry. When ISPs were forced to ban pirate bay by a daft court judgement, it took me two minutes to find a proxy, and pirate bay’s traffic rose with the publicity.
So much for the corporate-sponsored legislative firewalls. Here in Vietnam there is a state-sponsored firewall no less absurd and meretricious. In Da Nang we can’t get facebook (no tragedy for me), but can get the BBC. In Hanoi it’s the reverse. (I shoud point out that I do not use the BBC for its news, which is as unreliable as any corporate media’s, but for its excellent football coverage at what is a crucial juncture of the season for the Gunners.) A quick and simple installation of the excellent anonymity network Tor, gives me a blow-by-blow account of the Arsenal’s battle for a Champions’ League place. In the lobby of our hotel yesterday I met a young Chinese woman despairing at the blocking of the Zuckerberg empire in her home country. She said that people in China paid for a service to get round the Great Firewall (a VPN?). With something as important for human rights as internet freedom, trust someone to try to make money out of it. I suggested Tor to her as a free alternative. The Chinese authorities are continually trying to block Tor, but bridging apparently makes this much more difficult. For further information, see this excellent article.
Meanwhile, I must go out and buy a beautiful wooden birdcage in Hanoi’s bustling markets, though not of course to house a bird. For someone who opposes corporate and state attempts to cage the internet, that might be considered hypocritical…..