Imagine if you will a society where the following is possible. You take your hard earned dollars to a bank. You deposit your checks, write checks to your creditors, pay your electric bill, maybe even have a savings account or two. Hundreds of other people in your community do the same. The bank is profitable and popular. It serves the purpose of being a bank to many citizens. However, unbeknownst to you and the fine upstanding community members who use the bank, there are a few people who use the bank to launder money. They sell drugs or run prostitution rings or whatever, then deposit the money in the bank. They use the money to buy other non-illegal items like real estate or whatever the hot new item is that money launderers use this year for their dirty money.
The Feds get wind of this situation. They embark on a 2 year investigation into the money launderers, tracking their movements, their actions, their dirty money laundering. After 2 years, they have enough evidence to know who these people are and decide the time is right to take action. They swoop in but instead of arresting the people who are laundering money, they shut down the bank, confiscate all the accounts and money in the bank, arrest 8 of the executives and then flip the middle finger to everyone involved. The money launderers decide it’s high time to retire to Antigua for a few years and hop on the next plane out of town. Meanwhile, you can’t get any of your money. Your electric gets cut off, a big hairy dude with a Dirty Harry revolver comes and repos your car and the sheriff shows up to kick you out of your house because you haven’t paid your mortgage.
That doesn’t sound like a very sound way to go about chasing down money launderers does it? If we lived in a society like that, you’d think shit had really hit the fan and that maybe we were fundamentally broken in a way that worked hard to punish as many people as possible regardless of innocence or guilt, just to get at money launderers, who in the grand scheme of things, aren’t really that dangerous. Sure, they’re breaking the law and should be punished but it would take a real fascist to justify the collateral damage involved in shutting down a bank, just to get money launderers.
Sadly, that’s the society we live in now as it relates to online piracy of movies and music. Yesterday, the Feds shut down a site called MegaUpload which without a doubt contributed to online piracy in some way but which also served a much larger and more benign purpose: sharing files. Today, all the people who used MegaUpload as a file sharing format in good faith have exactly ZERO access to their files. We are living in an increasingly connected and centralized world where the powers of a fascist government can have far reaching effects on innocent victims all in the name of solving a problem not that many people are interested in solving. And in fact, the only reason we are trying to solve it is because the people who ARE interested in the problem are extremely powerful and rich, a dangerous combination in a political system run by the rich and powerful and power hungry.
The Feds didn’t need SOPA or PIPA or anything else to shut down MegaUpload. The Internet isn’t free today, regardless of the SOPA protest worldwide on Wednesday. Our government can, at will, freely inflict a great deal of pain on large populations of innocent people in the name of tracking down online pirates. The heavy handedness is astounding.
Justice is founded on many principles but one of its pillars is the idea that it is more important not to convict a single innocent person than it is to let all the guilty in the world go free. As rational, just, decent creatures, it should be far more pressing to ensure no innocents are ever convicted even if it means letting some guilty parties go free. No just system can be based on anything else. And yet, our government no longer seems to be a just system of governance. From the benefits and collusion of those on Wall Street with those at the highest levels of governance to this latest episode of shutting down a site that happens to facilitate online piracy occasionally, we are seeing that justice seems to be rarely served at all and when it is, it’s almost always off the mark.
I wrote an essay earlier today about trying to avoid the urge to blow things up and start over. I truly believe that’s the best way to solve things. But a government that ignores the need to be just will foment anger and hatred among the governed, anger and hatred that very well may boil over into the streets. It seems like hyperbole to think that the shutting down of MegaUpload will cause civil unrest but eventually, there will be a straw too heavy for the camel to continue. I hope we can come to some alternate conclusion before that happens.