Sunday, February 10, 2013

Access Equality and the Capitalist Digital Divide

In the past week or so, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling with potentially great ramifications in Europe (minus Belarus, of course; if you don't understand why that is, please read up on post-Soviet Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko): "For the first time in a judgment on the merits, the European Court of Human Rights has clarified that a conviction based on copyright law for illegally reproducing or publicly communicating copyright protected material can be regarded as an interference with the right of freedom of expression and information under Article 10 of the European Convention." While it does not suddenly make any and all copyright infringement legal by any means, the ruling sets up three requirements that must be proven in court for the case not to be a human rights violation: the case "must be pertinently motivated as being necessary in a democratic society, apart from being prescribed by law and pursuing a legitimate aim."  This is a huge step forward for every European citizen's information rights, of course, and is exceedingly pertinent to digital humanities scholars, especially those who wish to work with more contemporaneous materials (the number of which increases when considering that such materials can easily extend back through approximately a hundred years, in terms of copyright being in effect).  While it will still take time to see the specifics that this ruling will entail, it has definitely increased the difficulty of bringing a case seeking damages, and it will be easier for academics to form a legal defense around the use of copyrighted digital materials in an academic, non-profit environment.

Now if only we could get such a ruling in America, but unfortunately this country is locked in the control-freak throes of the capitalist digital divide and our slavery to not just the profit, but the ever-increasing profit.  Even as digital devices become more affordable and we see the tangible resource-driven aspect of the divide shrinking around us (although many unfortunately assume that it has shrank much more than it has in actuality), we still enforce a digital information divide through the cost of artificial access restraints (e.g. DRM, licensing) beyond the truly unavoidable restraints of infrastructure.  Institutions such as libraries have been able to help off-set such access costs in the past more easily, but for now companies are able to exercise information monopolies with practically no restraint, such as in the ridiculous bargaining power publishers are allowed against libraries when selling e-books.  Until we address these abuses of copyright in the United States, until we address that information needs to be regarded as something people have a right to and understand that it is not just a capitalist commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, we will not be able to completely escape this divide, and there will always be those unfortunate souls punished simply because they wanted to access information, because they wanted to engender such access, and because they desired to encourage information literacy and education.  This not only unfairly impacts digital humanities scholars along capitalist lines (e.g. you can only work with the materials your school can afford to access, putting scholars at more financially endowed institutions at a significant advantage, regardless of merit on the scholar's part, especially considering the increasingly political nature of appointments when more money is involved), it also allows capitalist control over what we study; if a corporation or wealthy individual doesn't want something researched, why not put it in a price range that would turn away academia?

Of course, this doesn't even touch on other problems with the digital divide in America, such as the increasing gap between the upper and lower classes, and the severe defunding of education, leaving better education accessible primarily to those lucky enough to afford it.  There is much wrong in America when it comes to information rights, capitalism, and the digital divide, and digital humanities scholars must be aware and help in the fight against these wrongdoings.

1 comment:

  1. I'm particularly concerned with the digital gap in education. The concept that the educational materials available to students should be tied to what schools can afford isn't new, but the growing divide is. Does this mean we sacrifice access across the board in the public school system? Are private schools now defined by specialize access?