Not even William Gibson could have imagined the cyberpunk dystopia that the 2012 Olympics have ushered in. With a wink and a smile the British government have handed over sovereign power and citizens' rights to corporations.
At first glance, there would appear to be little in common between the London Olympic Games and the dystopian cyberpunk universes dreamt up in the 80’s in novels by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Philip K. Dick or John Brunner.
When you think about it though, doping — the ghost of which still unsurprisingly haunts these 2012 Games — is a very cyberpunk phenomenon. The pages of those 80’s novels are filled with humans trying to artificially augment themselves by means of bionic implants or the intake of chemicals.
When it comes to the issue of intellectual property rights and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the analogy with cyberpunk seems particularly relevant. With the frightening arsenal put together by organisers for the purpose of protecting copyrights and brands associated with the Games, we’re catching a glimpse of how far the worst excesses of intellectual property could lead us.
One of the lesser known characteristics of cyberpunk universes is the role of large private corporations in the life of citizens. The (French) Wikipedia entry on cyberpunk describes this role.
Multinational corporations have become more powerful than states. They have their own laws, their own territories and control the lives of their employees from birth to death. Their leaders are most of the time utterly devoid of any moral sense. The competition to climb the hierarchical ladder is a deadly game.
The characters of cyberpunk novels are insignificant in comparison to the God-like power of mega-corporations: in the face of them, they (citizens) are like grains of sand in a well-oiled machine.
In cyberpunk universes, the most powerful private corporations have ended up absorbing some of the prerogatives that, in our world, are still the prerogative of states, such as law enforcement by the police or the army. Cyberpunk corporations control territories, and in some ways their employees become the equivalent to “citizens” of these companies. Rights are linked to whether or not one belongs to a powerful company.
For the London Olympic Games, the IOC managed to convince the British state to hand over a number of sovereign rights. What novelists of the cyberpunk wave failed to foreshadow was that it is through the realm of intellectual property rights that the transfer of public power is taking place.
In order to protect its brands and author rights, but also to be in a position to grant truly exclusive rights to its generous sponsors such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, BP or Samsung, the IOC obtained from the British Parliament a vote in 2006 to approve the Olympics Game Act. The Act awards the Olympic Delivery Authority outrageous powers, with a fleet of 280 agents at its disposal to enforce business regulations around the 28 sites where the events will take place. LOCOG (London Organising Committee) has its own squad of brand police, who walk the streets of London in purple caps, ensuring compliance with the Olympics Brand Policy. They have the authority to enter not only shops, but also private buildings, and to take legal action via extraordinary accelerated procedures to enforce fines of up to £31,000.
The Olympics Game Act has established a language police, which will bring to bear its full weight on freedom of speech for the whole duration of the games. For instance: it is forbidden to use in the same sentence any two of the words “games”, “2012″, “Twenty Twelve”, “gold”, “bronze”, or “medal”. Using, modifying, reappropriating, connoting, or creating a neologism from terms belonging to the vocabulary of the Games is also out of the question. Several businesses, such as Olympic Kebab, the Olympic Bar, or the London Olympus Hotel have been instructed to change their names or face hefty fines.
Use of the Olympic symbols, such as the Olympic rings, is also strictly regulated. A baker has been forced to remove from his window breads that he had baked in the shape of rings; a florist received a similar reprimand for floral arrangements recreating the symbol. A grandmother even got into trouble for having knitted an Olympic-themed sweater for a doll, which was meant to be entered in a charity sale!
The rules are also strictly applied to the media. Rights must be purchased before employing symbols and terms linked to the Games. In France the TV channel BFM, having not purchased these rights, has been reduced to speaking of the “Summer Games” to avoid saying “Olympic”. A legal exemption does exist in the name of freedom of information, so that journalists can report on these public events. But the limits of this exemption are far from clear; in the UK The Spectator magazine got into trouble for having reused the Olympic rings on its cover to illustrate a story on the risk of censorship at the Games. That same story revealed that several English companies prefer to preventively self-censor and use “the O-word” rather than take the risk of employing the word “Olympics”. The Olympic Games and Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort: They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!
The Index on Censorship reports that the Twitter accounts of activists protesting the Games taking place in London have been suspended following requests addressed to Twitter, because their profiles contained terms related to the Olympics. Extra police staff have also been deployed to scatter demonstrations and patrol more than 90 exclusion zones. Even more grotesque, hypertext links towards the website of the Olympic Games 2012 are only allowed if you’re saying positive things about them! Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been affected by the IOC language police, who demanded the withdrawal of campaign videos mentioning the Olympic Games on the grounds of copyright infringement.
For the spectators turning up at the stadiums themselves, restrictions will be even more drastic. All attendees are bound by extremely precise contractual clauses, detailed on their entrance tickets. These measures forbid the broadcast of videos or pictures taken at the events on social networks, in order to protect the exclusive rights granted to certain media organisations. Surveillance cells have been put together to spy on users of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
The rules of the Games go as far as dictating what spectators can eat. It’s impossible, for instance, to escape McDonald’s fries at the event areas, as McDonald’s obtained the exclusive rights to sell that culinary delight. One exception was granted, for when fries are served with fish, Britain’s national dish! Intellectual property rights will also dictate how one can dress. Olympic authorities will tolerate spectators wearing Nike when Adidas is an official sponsor, but donning Pepsi t-shirts at a Coca-Cola sponsored event is a bridge too far. Bringing 3G or wireless routers to events is also forbidden, and they will be confiscated. British Telecom has obtained the exclusive rights to wireless access and the spectators will have to pay (but only by Visa card, another Olympic sponsor!).
There are endless more of these Kafkaesque examples, but hopefully the point is made. With these London Games, we have truly entered the cyberpunk age. A tremendous transfer of public power towards private corporations has taken place, using intellectual property rights as leverage. One can then take the measure of the relative strengths of the “exclusive rights” attached to brands and to copyright, let loose in an environment saturated with such signs and logos. The OpenOlymPICS Tumblr documents how the city of London has transformed itself for the event, with shops and businesses covered with references to the Olympic Games.
This private property leads to a “deprivation” of citizens’ public liberties, subjecting them to the law of corporations. Essential public goods such as words of language, information, urban space, public transportation, gastronomy, and dress codes are “privatised”.
The trigger that led me to thinking of the cyberpunk universe was the athlete that decided to rent his shoulder to brands that had not purchased IOC rights to advertise, via a temporary tattoo. This runner put up his own arm for auction on eBay and sold himself to an ad agency for $11,100. Here we have the full submission of an individual to a corporation, operating as in cyberpunk novels by way of body modifications that inscribe this serfdom unto the flesh!
These excesses are extremely serious, and they trace without a doubt the outline of a dark future for our societies. In the battles against ACTA, SOPA and PIPA, one of the points that attracted the most criticism from collectives fighting for the defence of liberties was precisely that these bills transferred police powers to private operators (ISP’s or rights holders) to enforce intellectual property rights. This is exactly what La Quadrature du Net (a French digital rights advocacy group) reproached ACTA for in this Robocopyright ACTA video, which incidentally parodies one of the emblematic movies of cyberpunk culture.
What the IOC has obtained from the British government widely exceeds what has appeared in ACTA or SOPA in terms of the delegation of public powers. Although I still cannot quite believe it, upon request from the Olympic authorities the British Minister of Defence agreed to erect missile batteries on the rooftops of residential buildings to protect some Olympic sites from potential terrorist attacks. If that isn’t cyberpunk…!
In an article published on the website of Le Monde written by Patrick Clastre, a historian of the Olympics, he indicates that the level of restrictions has never been higher than for these London Games, far higher indeed than was the case in Beijing in 2008. In order to establish that level of control, he adds, the IOC needs “a dictatorship or an ultra-liberal country“.
This is a bone-chilling sentence.
Imagine for a moment that a political party had the power to control the media, to implement censorship, to raise a private army, to close down businesses, to impose on the population rules regarding food and clothing, and so forth. Would there not be outcry, denouncing creeping fascism? And would they not be right? Is the level of censorship and control exerted at the moment on London so different from that that bore upon the Arab populations before their revolutions?
Should are standards be different because it’s companies and brands that are involved rather than a party? In this way, I see a parallel between these 2012 London Games and the fateful 1936 Berlin Games. It will perhaps be said that I have reached the Godwin point, but in terms of infringement on public liberties, are we really so far away from what was happening in Germany between the wars?
Last week, Jérémie Nestel of the Libre Accès collective wrote an extremely powerful post, entitled “The Disappearance of Common Cognitive Goods Announces a Totalitarian Society”. I was broadly in agreement with his sentiments, even if I found the use of the word “totalitarian” questionable. The article contains the following passages, which directly echo the legal excesses of the Olympic Games.
The will of multinational corporations to privatise common cognitive goods is an attack on the public sphere. The public sphere, until now referring to an open space accessible to all, within which one can freely move, can be extended to cognitive spaces. [...]
Preventing the transformation of a work, and artificially creating a border within the “common spaces of knowledge” is an act particular to a totalitarian society.
The rules set up by the IOC to protect its intellectual property rights seriously undermine the public sphere, and they lead to the destruction of essential common goods. Hannah Arendt explains very well that totalitarianism operates by destroying the distinction between public and private spheres. In the case of between-the-wars fascism or of Stalinism, it’s the public sphere that burst its banks and swallowed up the private sphere until it had entirely devoured it.
The excesses in intellectual property law that we are observing during these Olympic Games operate the other way around. This time is the private sphere that overwhelms the public space, and destroys it by subjecting it to its exclusive logic. The disastrous effects on individual liberties are essentially identical, and it’s precisely this mechanism of corruption that the cyberpunk authors had anticipated with their supreme corporations.
Except that they could never have imagined that it would be intellectual property would be the trigger for the advent of this nightmare…
PS: One thing that makes me laugh nevertheless is that apparently the IOC faces a few problems of its own with the logo of the London 2012 Games. An artist claims his own work has been plagiarised in its creation…
Image Credits: Stuck in Customs CC (BY-NC-SA)
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