How the SOPA opera could kill the Internet
The debate over a legislative response to piracy has implications far beyond the entertainment industry
Blogs | 18 Jan 2012 :
January 18 2012 will go down in history as the day society went nuts over the inability to check random facts. Online crowdsourced encyclopedia Wikipedia's 'day of protest' against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA
) and Protect IP Act (PIPA
) saw the website 'go dark', ie make itself unavailable for a 24-hour period.
The move was followed by BoingBoing, the Cheezburger network and in Ireland by satirical website Brodsheet.ie. A different tack was presented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, Wired and Wordpress who either pushed their coverage of the bills to the front page or displayed showed censored versions of their home pages illustrating just how the internet might look if its ability as a platform for the free flow of ideas and information were to be compromised.
While as many as 7,000 websites participated in the protest in some way, it's not quite a united front. Twitter COO Dick Costolo tweeted that the protest did his business no favours, and that revoking service to his the entire user base over "single-issue national politics" was "foolish" - a claim he later clarified as being relevant only to Twitter, not the protesters en masse.
Costolo may well have to rein in on that statement, if SOPA or PIPA pass the "single-issue" politics he dismisses as being of only peripheral interest to Twitter could in a worst case scenario end up destroying it.
Effectively dealing with the same issue of online piracy of copyrighted material SOPA and PIPA, working their way through the House of Representatives and Senate respectively, seek to target websites trading in pirated content, either by selling directly, charging subscriptions or linking to sites other that do.
As pro-industry, pro-rightsholder bills SOPA and PIPA could see infringing websites have their links in search engines pulled, have their ability to carry advertising and manage payment from US-based services withdrawn and convict individuals for violating copyright by using said websites.
For the entertainment industry SOPA/PIPA represents a zero tolerance approach to websites that would make money pirating from material. For the rest of the Internet this could represent the end of the concept of fair use and freedom of expression online.
Under the terms of the proposed Acts anyone that shares a clip of a pop video without permission by posting it to their Facebook or Twitter profile, or uploads a video of themselves singing a song without the rightsholder's permission is effectively committing an act of piracy, and the host website facilitating the infringement. Should the entertainment industry have its way the likes of Justin Bieber, discovered on YouTube, would not only not been discovered, he would likely have been sued. That said poppet has made millions for the recording industry only serves to illustrate the ridiculousness of this position.
To the casual observer it's obvious that SOPA/PIPA are ill-conceived products of intense lobbying and corporate groupthink, driven by a short-sighted profit motive. Yes, the entertainment industry is losing out to illegal file sharing and dodgy Web stores should be shut, but for the Acts' proponents to argue that social networks and discussion forums can be places where the unauthorised distribution of work can take place and should be sanctioned smacks of desperation. To a certain extent they are right, but hardly sympathetic.
On the opposing side is the tech community raised on a remix culture where new ideas are constructed from those already in the public domain - from pictures of cats to fan-made pop videos to news from a thousand sources aggregated on Google. And yes, there is the perception that music doesn't have to be paid for, that CDs are overpriced and that anodyne content is devaluing the industry. To a certain extent they are right, but hardly sympathetic.
The trouble for legislators is that they have to balance the long-term economic benefits of a vibrant tech sector, against an entrenched entertainment industry, and neither side can live without the other. It's a bizarre kind of mutually assured destruction and SOPA, if passed, will trigger. Their position is unenviable and one gets the sense any final vote will be passed as a function of which side makes the loudest noise over what's best for the global economy.
Websites going dark is a fine example of how the Internet does protest. It's short, eye catching, and wholely unlikely to change anything. Time for letter writing to come back in fashion.