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Uganda: We Must Keep the Internet Open

The Monitor (Kampala)

20 January 2012


A debate that has implications of a global scale is currently underway in the US Senate and House of Representatives over two Bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

Proponents of the two Bills say they will stop the theft of intellectual property, ensure that innovation is rewarded, giving birth to more effort and innovation.

As an organisation that creates intellectual property that is often used without our permission and without the financial reward necessary for us to continue creating it, we consider this to be a powerful albeit selfish argument.

However, as an organisation that promotes democracy and its inherent tenets of freedom, we are seduced by the arguments put forward by opponents of the two Bills: that they are a threat to the important culture of whistle-blowing; an attack on the openness of the Internet; a threat to free speech; and a disincentive for the creativity and collaboration that gives birth to user-generated content.

To demand for free speech and an open Internet is not to condone theft of intellectual property. Rather, it is to ensure that the rights and opportunities that arise out of this vast cyberspace are not collateral damage in the war to protect the profits of the wealthy and well connected.

This debate is taking place alongside a related politico-economic contest between the super wealthy one per cent and the 99 per cent who simply get by. The debate over intellectual rights must, as a matter of necessity, include a debate on equity, inclusiveness as well as participation for the majority.

From Tripoli to Tehran, Manama to Myanmar, an open Internet has allowed citizens of despotic regimes by-pass local censorship to share tales of their pain and terror with the world. If passed, SOPA and PIPA are likely to set a precedent for controlling the Internet that these despotic regimes will use to clampdown harder on their citizens, as happened with a slew of anti-terrorism legislation across the world after 9/11.

Those who create value should be rewarded but this goes beyond downloading illegal videos or sharing songs without paying for them. This is about a skewed global capitalist system that sees Ugandan coffee farmers get less than five per cent of the value of the coffee they grow yet die of treatable diseases because a patent-protection regime keeps cheaper generic drugs out of their reach. Of what use is it for us to inherit the riches of intellectual property and lose our humanity?

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