Alex Galloway, "Piracy, Control Practices, and Alternatives"

"Piracy, Control Practices, and Alternatives"
Alex Galloway, with Pavlos Hatzopoulos and Thanasis Priftis

[From "Piracy as activism" special issue -]

P.H. - T.P.: With what types of practices would you relate the concept
of piracy in networks? Is it problematic, from a critical standpoint,
to confine piracy to file-sharing?

Alexander Galloway: The pirates are on the rise. With their black
markets and black hats, pirates commandeer ships and copy DVDs. They
crack software systems and resell them under the counter. At the same
time immaterial goods proliferate in file-sharing networks, many
thousands labor away on their contributions to open source projects,
and millions more labor away in online games.

So perhaps to begin one might make a basic distinction between piracy
and the kind of collaborative sharing we associate with culture and
community. In a strict sense piracy is a form of commerce, illicit to
be sure, but commerce nonetheless. Something is stolen and resold via
the black market. Pirates are above all businessmen. Contrast this
with the anti-market activity of sharing, borrowing, or stealing. The
continuum is broad here-for example one is free to endorse sharing
while rejecting stealing-yet it is clear that such activities are
not black-market activities in any traditional sense. In fact I
would guess that very little real piracy takes place in file sharing
networks. It's mostly sharing, borrowing or stealing.

I include stealing here simply to appease the right. I personally have
very little against these kinds of activities and find it difficult
to label them "stealing" in any real sense of the word. In fact there
are lots of cases in which borrowing or even stealing is justified,
particularly in today's economy in which so much of human life is
stolen and debased by commercial and state interests. Reverse stealing
is often a necessity.

In contrast to piracy I have mentioned the communitarian cultures
of sharing, borrowing, copying, and openness. It must be stated
emphatically, against the hysterical protestations of the business
world: sharing and borrowing are as old as culture. From Homer and
Virgil to Richard Wagner and Thomas Mann here is no artist who does
not borrow and steal. There is no one who does not share language,
share the common aspects of life and culture. Private property,
particularly intellectual property, is a rather recent invention in
human history and a cancerous one. The values we hold dear derive not
from commercial hoarding and market-driven necessities but from the
communitarian values of sharing and openness.

P.H. - T.P.: How do pirate practices relate to the control of digital
networks? Are there cases when they can elude control?

Alexander Galloway: Networks are always a question of control. This
is true for the pirates just as much as it is true for Microsoft.
Computers are control technologies, plain and simple. It is tempting
to romanticize the pirate or hacker as someone who eludes control.
That's simply not the case, except of course in the movies. The only
way to elude digital control systems is to be quite militant and not
to interface with them at all. Instead we need to think in terms of
"alternatives of control" or "control practices."

Perhaps the root of the question is really one of power and
sovereignty. How is it possible to entrain a given network to do the
work of a given sovereign interest? Such questions are crucial for
they touch on the relationship between the one and the many, the
sovereign and the multitude-always a crucial issue for understanding

P.H. - T.P.: Do you see connections between digital piracy and coding
practices such as viruses, worms, spam?

Alexander Galloway: These are all control practices that rely heavily
on vectors of exploitation. Pirates, worms, spam, etc. all take
advantage of affordances existing within systems. So they are all
phenomena, I would say, which are quite normal and native to massive
interconnected systems. They also tend to extend horizontally and
leverage the contagious nature of networks in order to propagate far
and wide with ease.

P.H. - T.P.: How do you assess the increasing policing and
criminalisation of digital piracy? Would you say that these measures
are part of the paradigm of control or that they fall under
disciplinary forms of power?

Alexander Galloway: Increased policing and criminalization in recent
years is a good indication that the fledgling network sovereigns
are finding their wings. They might be nation-states. Or they might
be commercial powers. It does not much matter. While protocological
control used to be a threat to disciplinary power, jeopardizing the
dominance of entrenched power centers, one witnesses today power's
newfound familiarity with issues such as horizontality, contagion,
and rhizomatics. The old powers are, if you will, putting on the
face of control. One would be wise not to speak so much in terms of
control "versus" power, but rather the ways in which power interfaces
with control, or control with power. One might look at how protocols
are used selectively, based on certain circumstances, all the while
relying on a backdrop of classical models of power (which is to say,
the theory of sovereignty).

P.H. - T.P.: It seems that there is a growing awareness among digital
pirates that existing internet protocols constrain their activities.
How do you see their efforts to construct new alternative protocols,
such as a distributed DNS system?

Alexander Galloway: Networks have always contained contrasting
political diagrams. Some diagrams are more centralized, while others
are more distributed. DNS has been a problem for a long time, given
its hierarchical nature. But at the same time DNS is becoming more and
more irrelevant. When was the last time you typed in a URL? Search
has replaced domain names for the most part. Even so I have said for
a long time that DNS is irrelevant. Only humans need domain names.
They are merely mnemonic conveniences masking IP addresses. Eliminate
them and the web will still function fine. The last ten years has seen
the rise of platform-specific namespaces (often commercial but not
necessarily so) such as those of online game universes, VPNs, semantic
namespaces like search engines, Facebook, Bittorent, etc. Domain names
don't matter in these worlds.

It is the centralized and hierarchical nature of these addressing
namespaces that is the issue. So to address your question, yes a
robust distributed addressing technology would be valuable. Although
in many cases IP addresses work nicely, depending on the technology
in question. We often don't give the Internet Protocol (IP) enough
credit! It's a fairly radical invention.

The protocological developments I'm most curious about are those
involving ad hoc networking. This kind of networking has tremendous
potential, particularly in it's rejection of the top-down, statist
model of the connectivity backbone. We don't need superhighways. But
ad hoc networking is still waiting for the "killer app" that will
propel it into the public arena.

P.H. - T.P.: Is there the potential that piracy can embody a politics
of asymmetry?

Alexander Galloway: The question of asymmetry is a challenging
one when speaking about networks. The reason is that networks are
themselves built up through relationships of asymmetry. Networks
connect entities which are by definition unequal. (If they were in
some sense equal they would not be obligated to "network" but could
communicate directly.) So yes, piracy and sharing embody a politics of
asymmetry to the extent that they express a unique network formation.

But this might not mean much. The more important question is not the
existence as such of piracy but the quality of this existence, its
ethos. Asymmetry by itself means little. One must investigate the
various aspects of asymmetry in order to determine their utility for
democracy and the fostering of community and human freedom.

P.H. - T.P.: Could you be more specific on these "various aspects of
asymmetry"? Do the potentially emancipatory aspects of asymmetry all
have to do with the formation of conscious political actors or of
social practices that support broader political movements? Or can,
in other words, piracy foster community and freedom as an unintended

Alexander Galloway: I speak of aspects as eidos (είδος). One
might therefore think in terms of the many aspects of asymmetry,
of the many epithets for connectivity. The "temporary autonomous
zone," the enclave, the rhizome, the swarm, datamining, outsourcing,
the sleeper cell, the digital divide, the global-single event, etc.
But one must not fetishize form for its own sake. Asymmetry is not
a panacea. There are no guarantees granted by form alone. This
is one of the most difficult lessons to learn in one's political
education. An attention to context is therefore very important. In
this sense, community is never an epiphenomenon. Community is a
primary ontological category. We will notice unintended consequences
spinning off from it, indeed-happiness, the law, reality. But one must
always begin from the law of the common, for example the law of "the
inclusion of the excluded." What emerges is called the political.