Since the earliest times of the internet, once large organizations like the RIAA learned how to monetize it, there has been this idea that file sharing is wrong and actually damages a society. More recently, internet censorship has been a highly discussed topic in the west with the defeat of SOPA and PIPA in the United States, the new proposals of ACTA and CISPA, the shutting down of Mega Upload, the adoption of a Net Neutrality Law in the Netherlands and most recently the absurd law suit against Lime Wire. With all these counter measures going on simultaneously, it can be hard to see that the internet core foundation is for the free flow of information. But as a new report shows just how important it is for us to keep the transmission of information free and unrestricted.
The report I am referring to is about North Korea, a country which is famous for its censorship. Quite literally, the citizens of the DPRK are given an inaccurate account of the world around them through lies and propaganda. The state controls all access to information and one cannot access anything that has not been created or authorized by the government.
The end result of this process is massive brainwashing in a way which brings up images of George Orwell’s 1984. But all is not lost apparently, for a new survey hints that new developments in technology are giving the citizens of the DPRK access to information and insights from beyond their border. What developments you ask? Quite simply, file sharing.
The report is entitled A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment and surveyed North Korean refugees and those who managed to get out of the country. It shows that an increasing number of people are gaining access to pirated media from the outside world. This is potentially the greatest chance the people have of earning their freedom from the oppressive regime.
Collecting information from the outside world is done through radio or tv programs picked up off of South Korea and is actually a crime in North Korea. It’s interesting to note that even though a small minority of the population has access to internet, most North Korean’s are getting their information through file sharing devices such as DVDs, MP3 players and USB drives. Through this process the citizens are increasingly exposed to pirated TV shows and pop music leaking from their neighbors to the south. What is crucial about this is that the image these pirated shows present the North Koreans is completely at odds with the image of the world they are presented with at home. And so slowly, the walls the DPRK regimes have put up between the real world and their propaganda world may dissolve.
A 31 year old who managed to escape North Korea explains, “I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn’t the case.”
Even though computers are legal, they are still on the rare side. So people have been buying blank devices and using their social networks to acquire pirate South Korean media from the people who do have PC access. As a 23 year old former Pyongyang resident said, “The MP4 [player] was empty but I received movies and music from friends who had computers and then I watched and listened to them. The battery was charged with electricity and it was portable so young people liked it.”
According to a 44 year old who left North Korea in 2010, “about 70-80 percent of people that have MP3/4 players are young people. When you do a crackdown of MP3/4 players among high school and university students, you see that 100 percent of them have South Korean music.” This is especially dangerous because having unauthorized TV shows or music is quite illegal. Depending on how lenient the “courts” want to be, a punishment sentence can range between 3 months unpaid labor and 5 years in a prison camp if the media found is from South Korea.
But despite the risks, young people in North Korea are continuing to defy the regime by consuming these unauthorized TV shows and music. This just shows how similar we all are. In the US too, youths who share files or pirate media face a $150,000 fine in “damages.” So long as western governments bring old ideas of governing to the internet age, they will repeatedly fail.
Now I’m not saying that the situations in North Korea and the US are the same, quite far from it. But it is interesting to note how pirating and sharing information illegally, a practice demonized by corporations and governments in the west (and east), could be the greatest chance North Koreans have at combating their oppressive government. Furthermore, the core idea surrounding the issue of pirating in the west and in North Korea is the same, it centers on the free flow of information.
In my opinion access to information can never be damaging (on the whole) and I will continue to oppose any legislation or practice which tries to hinder it. The internet is one of the greatest creations of humanity, if not the greatest. It has given us much and propelled our technology and society forward. Now if only our political and economic systems could understand that and learn to mold themselves around it, I think we would see the emergence of a much freer and more informed world.