Don't march for Napster

Corporate co-optation of civil rights rhetoric is an abomination. It should be shunned.

Published April 3, 2001 2:32AM (EDT)

You have the power to keep file-sharing over the Internet alive. Washington insiders should never win out over the will of the people. --Napster's home page

Is it time to start painting those protest signs and warm up the drums, to link arms and take it to The Man? On April 3, Napster wants "you, your parents, your kids and your friends" to meet at the top of the Union Station Metro escalators in Washington and walk together to a Senate Judiciary hearing on Capitol Hill. Perhaps, if we all just joined together, we could make the world a better place -- a place where every man, woman and child could freely download copyrighted intellectual property without fear of reprisal.

Never mind the likelihood that the proposed march, if it actually happens, will no doubt be just as much a fiasco as most of Napster's other initiatives. As Wired News' Declan McCullagh amusingly reported, Napster hasn't applied for any of the necessary permits for a march, and is planning its mass gathering in an area where any group larger than 20 people will attract police like flies to well, uh, you get the picture.

Let's also ignore for the moment the unfortunate reality that exercising your civil rights in support of Napster instead of aggrieved entertainment titans like Sony or Time-Warner is a tad muddle-headed. Napster, VC-backed and run by high-priced lawyers, is every bit as greedy as any music biz company. And for Napster to be bandying around insults like "Washington insider" is especially annoying -- who could possibly fit that role better than David Boies, the lawyer Napster hired to defend itself? Boies' main claim to fame is pulling off the amazing double feat of successfully defending IBM from an antitrust suit, and (for the time being) victoriously prosecuting Microsoft for the very same crime. One can assume he knows how to maneuver his way around Washington's halls of power.

But I can hear the murmurs of the faithful. We don't care -- Napster has a cause! The right to file-share must be preserved! To prevent Internet users from sharing the contents of their hard drives with all and sundry is a crime against cyberspace, a blasphemous violation of the sacrament of the digital revolution. Besides, record companies exploit artists and gouge consumers -- they must be stopped, by any means necessary. Napster -- of the people, by the people, for the people!

Faugh. Don't do it. Don't march for Napster, or for file-sharing. Not only is it just not worth it, but to do so would be an insult to the people who have marched for causes that represented something a little bit more meaningful than whether or not you can grab the newest Eminem track from the Net without paying for it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to peer-to-peer file sharing, and I'm no fan of the way record companies do business. I actually think that there is something fundamentally egalitarian in how the structure of the Net supports and facilitates interaction between millions of people. Cutting out the middleman is empowering, and, in theory, heck yeah, it should promote democracy. Peer-to-peer power to the people! Right on!

But Napster, the company, is not about promoting democracy. Napster is about making a buck, or, to be precise, a whole lot of bucks, by exploiting a new distribution paradigm. The company's use of '60s rhetoric -- such as its plan to hold a "teach-in" on April 2 to educate people on why it should be allowed to stay in operation -- in the service of its commercial interests is repugnant and crass. And our personal right to be able to get stuff for free online? Come on, people. We're not talking about stopping bombs falling in Vietnam, are we?

Pick a real cause -- pro-choice or pro-life, gun control or gun rights, global warming or world starvation -- and wear out some shoe leather. But can we please just say no to what appears to be an unfortunately healthy phenomenon: the rise of brain-dead attempts by corporations to make us feel like we should rally around their bottom line?

On April 3, Netizens can show their Internet appreciation by donating to an online charity, purchasing something online or investing in their favorite online business. Starting April 2, 2001, ICONOCAST and its partners will encourage consumers to send "Back the Net" online greeting cards through Excite@Home's to 10 friends, family members or business acquaintances.

Napster isn't the only corporation trying to pull a fast one on the Net masses. Due no doubt to some unholy juxtaposition of heavenly bodies, April 3 is also Back The Net day. At the behest of marketing maven Michael Tchong, all Net devotees are encouraged to buy something online on that day to show their support for the dream of e-commerce.

Originally dubbed "Take Back The Net" day (and undoubtedly changed once Tchong realized that drawing upon the symbolism of Take Back The Night -- a movement aimed at combating rape -- to promote online commerce might strike some people as a little, er, insensitive) Tchong's initiative might have been expected to sink without a trace immediately after launch. But that would require underestimating how brazen today's surviving dot-coms are in their increasingly futile search for a business model that doesn't require hourly infusions of venture capital. On March 27, Excite@Home, the Web portal/cable Net access company, announced that it too is supporting "Back The Net" day. "For every 'Back the Net' card sent," declared a press release, "Excite@Home will donate one dollar ($1), up to a maximum donation of $10,000, to a technology-focused charity. Card senders will also have the option of donating to a charity in the recipient's name."

Excite@Home is the owner of So in effect, Excite@Home is attempting to boost BlueMountain's business under the cover of a campaign to get people to "show their support for the Internet."

Here's a news flash. The Internet doesn't need anyone's support. The Internet is doing quite fine, thank you. It's the companies struggling to cash in on the Internet that are having problems. Asking Net users to pay for their services as if by doing so they would be joining Amnesty International or pledging to end world hunger is the last bit of proof anyone needs to settle once for and all the question of why so many dot-coms are going bankrupt.

They're dumb. Too dumb to live.

In a world where teenagers get Nike Swoosh tattoos and the introduction of New Coke inspires a popular rebellion it would be injudicious to deny that people do indeed care deeply about corporate marketing campaigns and products. But what continues to confound Net watchers is how badly the dot-coms bungle the lessons of 21st century capitalism, given a chance. Napster is a golden example, but Excite@Home isn't too far behind. Send a greeting card to demonstrate your support for the Internet? March on Washington so that Napster can continue its leech-like ways?

Don't do it. Don't march and don't click. That way, the next time you log on, you'll still have your self-respect.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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