In addition to triggering the greatest civic hell-raising in Internet history and inspiring numerous nonsensical quips about Latin cuisine and Kate Middleton’s younger sister, the SOPA/PIPA laws have touched a nerve in Cuba’s digital community. Bloggers from a diverse range of political perspectives are interpreting the proposed legislation not merely as a law on piracy, but as a powerful statement about how the US values culture and creativity as part of society.
Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula’s post on SOPA was particularly moving. She wrote of the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload, which took place shortly after Wednesday’s Internet blackout, describing the event as follows:
“‘The bad guys,’ those who wield freedom as a paradigm, with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the also alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.”
Note: the freedom-wielding “bad guys” are U.S. officials who plead for reforms in Cuba by offering the (perhaps empty-seeming) promise of the inherent good that democratic values could bring to the island. She continued:
“The issue is extremely complicated for me, a semi-surfer from a semi-connected country. I assume that the technologies have developed faster than the copyright laws and I assume that these illegal downloads don’t affect the artists themselves so much, as it geometrically multiplies the distribution of their work (provided there is no plagiarism and credit is given) as a form of advertising.
It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. I don’t consider myself an elitist or an expert; the simple perception of success and popularity reveals very aggressive publicity campaigns. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.”
Coyula makes two very important points: first, file-sharing sites provide something akin to a public good—they benefit people who otherwise cannot access or afford their contents in other ways. Second, these are laws that ostensibly favor commercial interests over the cultural commons and the “gift economy” in which art is created, re-created, and circulated. Most Cubans writing on the issue agreed on this point, and reason for this seems clear: in Cuba, culture has been legally enshrined as a public good since the triumph of the revolution.
In 1961, the revolutionary government made a bold, robust commitment to supporting artists and writers and making art accessible for all Cubans. While this wrought bitter controversies over what it meant for artists to join their fellow citizens in the trenches of an ideological war, it also led to the creation of a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions that remains highly active today. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture is not a privilege of the upper classes—it’s a right that all Cubans share.
Yet most Cubans are far worse off than any American when it comes to accessing information and media online. There, the Internet remains a battlefield, a contested space where government authorities and the official press denounce the United States’ cyberwar on Cuba, and the boundless universe of culture and knowledge online is scarcely mentioned. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use presumably in order to dampen the effects of political speech and economic activity online—they feel they must control such activity in order to preserve the socialist project.
If things had played out differently last week, and SOPA/PIPA were looking inevitable for us, we would have to get used to the idea of our government that limiting Internet use in order to placate content (music and film) industries. SOPA or not, we are far better off than Cubans when it comes to Internet use. But the question of what motivates our government to limit the Internet is still worth earnest consideration: are we a society that is okay with commercial interests trumping those of public goods? Congress may be, but last week’s uproar suggested that millions of us are not. I hope people are willing to keep sending this message to Congress, because it may take more than an Internet blackout to truly win this one.