January 6, 2010 | By Danny O'Brien

Et Tu, U2? Bono, Net Surveillance and the Developing World

We feel compelled to add our comments about Bono's recent New York Times column, in which he appeared to express a strange hope that ISPs would start spying on their users in the name of protecting America's intellectual property. "We know," says Bono, "from America's noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China's ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it's perfectly possible to track content." He continues by hoping that "movie moguls will succeed where musicians and their moguls have failed so far, and rally America to defend the most creative economy in the world, where music, film, TV and video games help to account for nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product."

But Bono's new-found embrace of tracking Internet activity is in direct conflict with his own positions (expressed in the same article) about global freedom and equity.

In discussing global freedom, Bono waxes about "the trouble an aroused citizenry can give to tyrants" and how the power provided to citizens "via cellphones, the Web and the civil society and democracy these technologies can promote, is being felt by those who have traditionally held power." Surely Bono realizes that those technologies can only promote freedom when they are built so that the citizens using them cannot be tracked, censored and spied upon (and ultimately punished for expressing their views).

Indeed, when accused of violations of basic human rights, China and other authoritarian regimes are happy to equate the development of their apparatus of online repression with other countries' censorship and surveillance systems.

And by far the best weapon they have in this global battle to erode the neutral role of service providers is the entertainment industry, which so regularly calls upon ISPs to actively police and censor the world's networks. Perhaps Iranians, Chinese and North Koreans will find in the next decade, as he predicts, "their Gandhi, their King, their Aung San Suu Kyi." But if all communications are built with the surveillance infrastructure and censorship policies he wants to force on ISPs, how will these emerging leaders protect their ability to motivate and inspire the world's people?

As one of the world's foremost champions in fighting global poverty, Bono has testified to Congress about the impact of excessive pharmaceutical patent enforcement on the availability of life-saving drugs. Given his understanding of the benefits of flexible IP reform, Bono's new call to seize control of the Internet by embedding content tracking in the name of ensuring full payment for the movies, music, and media that are overwhelmingly produced by rich countries sounds especially off key. After all, the net transfer of wealth due to an excessive emphasis on copyright enforcement is overwhelmingly from the world's poorest countries to the world's richest. The flourishing of local art and the fair trade of native culture from developing countries needs the flexibility of the global copyright regime, not a war on piracy.

A free Internet plays a critical role in the global struggle for political and economic freedom. In lending his voice and reputation to the entertainment businesses' radical demands, Bono risks silencing the global causes he otherwise so valiantly champions.


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