It was all of 13 minutes after midnight on Tuesday night when I went to look up something in Wikipedia… even though I knew the blackout protest was coming and had posted about it. If you didn’t know what was going on or would like to learn a little more about SOPA and PIPA, with hopefully a slightly spiritual angle, read on. But I want to stress, this is not a partisan issue. As I’ll explain later, the line between supporters and opponents has little to do with party affiliation. As Wikipedia said, in its message about participating in the blackout:
It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web… although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not.
If you’re not interested, forgive my using this, oh, let’s call it a point of personal privilege. SOPA and PIPA are bills before the U.S. House and Senate, respectively, that aim to fight copyright infringement in the digital sphere. As such, their supporters are portraying them as simply fair. But the bills present a clear-cut dividing line between the interests of big business and the interests of free and vital internet and tech industries. And since a good amount of the public conversation (including this column) is on the internet, that means free speech. The health and vitality of speech on the net is of personal importance. I hope I can explain why it is important to you too.
What’s the big deal about SOPA and PIPA?
In a nutshell, piracy and bootlegging are already illegal. (You’ve seen that obnoxious message from the FBI at the beginning of every DVD that you can’t fast-forward through.) But enforcement is always tricky; rules about appropriate reuse are confusing and not always reasonable; piracy operations are overseas and there is no barrier for U.S. internet users to foreign sites (at least for now.)
The bills’ supporters are from those industries that make their money off of controlling intellectual property: movie studios, record labels, TV networks, some consumer products companies and the pharmaceutical industry. Also, misguidedly, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce. Its opponents are, well, everyone else, from internet companies to most constitutional scholars. In Congress, this plays out not by party line but by which industries if any the congressperson is aligned with (supported by?). I don’t know how much of the bills’ support is based on lobbyist and donor influence and how much is based on unforgivable ignorance of the technical implications of the bills, but either way, these members of congress are taking a stand as enemies of a free and open internet.
As I said, piracy is already illegal. That’s not the issue. Here is what the bills do that makes them unacceptable:
- As currently written, both SOPA and PIPA give the Attorney General the right to effectively de-list a website, ordering it blocked from domain name servers and banned from results on search sites like Google. In other words, it would criminalize some linking, undermining the foundational principle of the internet: a decentralized interlinked web.
- SOPA would force Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites to police all user-generated content not only for copyright infringement but also for conversations that might involve infringing on copyrights, and shut down any posts and discussions that look problematic. This might seem minor, but it is what is called “prior restraint against protected speech” and it is unconstitutional. It also threatens a whole host of internet tools that are freely available and widely used which give users privacy and thus can be used for illegal activity. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation points out, these same tools are supported by the U.S. State Department when used by freedom activists in countries with closed internet policies, like China and Iran.
- In both bills, copyright holders can get court orders to cut off payment processing and advertising to foreign sites that are accused of copyright infringement. In other words, even though most of the content being shared on a foreign site is legal, if some of it is questionable, an American copyright holder can effectively bankrupt them by shutting off their income stream.
- Perhaps most troubling is what is informally called the “vigilante provision.” Both bills relieve ISPs from liability when they wrongly block a user or site that is only suspected of possible violations, with no judicial process. The intent is clearly to encourage them to over-police without worrying about violating people’s rights. But with content producers also acting as internet providers (my own home internet connection comes from Time Warner through my cable line), this will be abused to suppress smaller content creators and competitors. And when an owner of intellectual property wants to hurt a competitor, all they have to do is accuse them of copyright infringement and ISPs will censor the accused company’s site as a precaution, since they’ll be punished for knowingly allowing it, but not for violating the free speech of an innocent party. Companies that can afford lawyers can abuse this rule with no downside. From the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism, when you put the power in people’s hands to destroy enemies without risk through accusations, some will abuse it.
That spiritual angle I promised
I promised a spiritual angle; it is this: Piracy will always exist, just as the poor will always be with us, at least until an entirely new phase of existence is manifest. You cannot “solve” these problems. That’s the trap people fall into. They crave simplicity, black and white answers, a sense of security and control in the face of the messiness of life. Promoters of new laws like SOPA and PIPA always promise people that if they just give up a few little freedoms then life can be less unpredictable, more secure. It doesn’t work and even if it did, it isn’t worth it. The way to contain piracy is to arrest the guilty ones you can catch and make it harder for the rest to do their thing. Existing laws cover that. These new bills apply a sledgehammer to the problem, hurting the open internet and your individual liberties in order to make it incrementally easier for rich copyright holders to make bigger profits.
And after diminishing our freedom, SOPA and PIPA probably wouldn’t even do that. The profits of media companies are not being threatened by sites like Pirate Bay. If anything, they’re threatened by physical bootlegging of DVDs and CDs, and more significantly, by the fact that the mere existence of an open internet has changed the rules of the game, making it possible for people to get content from many new sources, and making them less willing, for example, to pay $16 for an album of which only one dollar ends up making it to the artist. These same industries tried to stop VHS players and audiocassettes. But the VHS player revitalized the film industry and made it many times bigger than it was before. And the explosion of ways musicians can now produce and distribute their music is equally exciting. These folks always get it wrong. They want to hang on to what they’ve got and make sure no one else gets any of it. In the process, they want to put this unruly mess called the internet under corporate control, as they think it should be. Let’s not let that happen.
SOPA in its current form was just shelved when the White House announced it would veto it, but PIPA is still moving forward in the Senate, and you can be sure SOPA will be back.