By Kris Kotarski
On Dec. 13, 1981, Poland's communist government declared martial law to put down the Solidarity movement. Telephone lines went silent across the country, and once service was restored, each time anyone picked up the telephone they were greeted with a voice: "Rozmowa Kontrolowana."
"This conversation is being monitored."
Since telephone service was still a rare privilege in a country where the political establishment feared citizen-to-citizen communication, some could shrug their shoulders because it did not directly apply to them. When, days later, the government set up regional censorship offices to read everyone's mail, shrugging one's shoulders ceased to be an option.
Not quite 30 years have passed, and tales like these remain common, from the Egyptian government's efforts to register and track users at Internet cafes, to Iranian government agents showing up on Twitter this spring to intimidate protesters.
That dictatorships treat their citizens this way is no surprise. What is surprising is that democracies are beginning to do the same.
It is increasingly apparent that modern copyright law is utterly and completely incompatible with the right to privacy. This is at the core of the Pirate movement in Europe which broke through to elect its first members of the European Parliament this summer, and the Pirate Party of Canada, which is collecting signatures on its website to register as an official political party as we speak.
While the name may sound a little humorous, the cause is very serious indeed. Whether you spend a lot of time online or not, the Pirate movement aims to keep the bounds of your and your children's relationship with their government in a reasonable place, and to make certain that the balance between citizen rights and the bottom line does not tilt in the wrong direction.
What has changed? Before home computers, compact discs and Internet file sharing, it was conceivable for copyright laws to be enforced in a manner that did not bring the state to any-one's doorstep. If there was an illegal copy of a book in a bookshop, one could report it to the authorities. If someone brought a video camera into a theatre or a concert, they could be readily seen.
Given today's technological realities, this is no longer the case. If we look at legislation that either exists or is tabled across the Western world, sending a song to a friend by e-mail is a crime. Posting even a short clip of a copyrighted video on a message board for one's friends risks a fine whether the message board is public or not, and taping a television show and passing the tape to your mom or dad may be illegal as well.
No one likes stealing, but the problem lies in the fact that current copyright laws are completely unenforceable unless the government or industry groups start to read every e-mail and analyze every form of online communication done by citizens.