How the PRISM Scandal Changed the Copyright Debate

Filed as Editorial on July 24, 2013 2:06 pm

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Empty RoomWhen The Guardian broke the NSA Prism scandal back in early June, the uproar on the Internet was both immediate and widespread. The Internet, as we talked about two weeks ago, has not let the scandal die down and it remains a hot-button issue today.

However, whenever a major scandal like this emerges, it inevitably has unintended consequences on other debates and discussions. The Web community, in the most broad sense of the word, tends to be laser-focused on whatever issue is most prevalent on any given day.

Issues that aren’t so prevalent, however, take a back seat.

One such example of this is the copyright debates. Though copyright became a hot button issue in early 2012 with the SOPA/PIPA protests, it had been a focal point of the tech community for a long time before.

Today though, much of that attention is gone and many of the tech sites and authors that focused heavily, or even almost exclusively, on copyright issues have shifted their aim to government-related issues. This move has quieted an online debate that is still very much active in courtrooms and legislatures all over the world and one that could easily play an important role in the PRISM/NSA discussion.

Unfortunately though, the reasons for this are straightforward and there isn’t much that can be done about it, at least not without breaking the laws of physics.

The Shrinking Spotlight

Techdirt is a tech site that, historically, has focused heavily on copyright and intellectual-property (IP) related matters. Before the NSA scandals, its home page was dominated by IP-related news, taking up the lion’s share of new content.

However, that changed drastically after the NSA scandal. As of this writing late in the evening on July 23, six of the ten stories on the home page focus on or discuss the NSA directly, one on government transparency, one on patent law and just one on copyright. The tenth story is a round up post with various links.

That trend continues for at least the next three pages, with government transparency/spying stories outnumber intellectual property stories handily.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has traditionally been one of the most active organizations on copyright matters, tracking, reporting on and even offering legal services in important cases. However, more recently, it’s Deeplinks blog has been focused much more heavily on government spying issues, with six stories about government surveillance in the first two pages of the site and only one about copyright

Though these are only small samples and by no means a thorough content analysis, both of these sites are considered major voices in the copyright debates, whether you agree with them or not, and they both have turned much of their attention away from the subject.

This would be understandable if there weren’t a great deal of copyright news going on, but news has not slowed down terrible. In Malaysia there are negotiations regarding the secretive and controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP), blocking of infringing sites (similar to SOPA/PIPA) is ramping up in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, artist outcry over royalties paid by streaming music services (including Pandora and Spotify) have reached a fever pitch and there are even hearings in Congress about a potential overhaul of U.S. copyright law.

To be clear, tech sites, including the ones above, are covering these stories. However, these stories aren’t receiving as much attention as they once did. Simply put, copyright is not the hot-button issue it was just a few months ago and it isn’t written about as much because it’s not the topic that gets traffic, comments and social media interaction.

The Internet, for now at least, has found a new outrage and that has made the copyright debates unusually quiet.

The Reason for the Calm

The reason for this, and the reason the Internet seems to be laser-focused on one issue at a time, is because attention, outrage and motivation are all finite resources. The amount of time in a day a person has to read, care about or study an issue that doesn’t relate to their immediate survival is limited.

People, naturally, try to prioritize the issues they care about and part of that prioritization is based on what is seen as most important. However, it’s also a part of what is most interesting and novel. To that regard, the PRISM issue is both serious, novel and interesting making it a natural target heightened interest.

In short, people are more interested in the PRISM scandal because it is more interesting, at least right now.

The concern though is that the copyright issues (and other issues on the back burner) don’t go away, the conversation just becomes more directed by people who are engaging in the dialog as part of their job. In the case of the copyright debate this includes content creators, lawyers, people who work for services involved in copyright (both legitimate and infringing), law enforcement and government officials in the field.

All of those groups are continuing to be very active in the conversation, it’s the “normal” follower of tech, someone for whom copyright is only one of many concerns, who is less involved.

However, without those voices, the conversation inevitably changes its tone as the broader public, though less involved directly can be an extremely loud force, as the SOPA/PIPA protests proved.

Bottom Line

When media and public attention is pulled away from a subject, even partially, the nature of the conversation around it changes. The presence of fewer voices and less attention changes the dynamics of a conversation.

However, if there is one thing that everyone in the copyright debate is acutely aware of, it’s that the issue can come to the forefront of public interest once again at any time. With the SOPA/PIPA protests, the interest in copyright, briefly, went outside even the tech community and into a much larger community of casual Internet users. This helped give even more volume to that side.

Just because the focus has shifted for now as bigger, newer topics have come up, doesn’t mean it can’t return. In the meantime though, a lot of important things will be happening in the copyright field that won’t be getting a large amount of press coverage.

As news sites respond to what is attracting user interest, copyright will wax and wane on their front pages, but the conversation will always be going on, whether or not the public is participating in a major way.

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