Wednesday, December 28, 2011


For those that haven't been paying attention to the actions of our congressional representatives--and it's Christmas, so who would?--there is pending legislation called the Stop Online Privacy Act.

Now, there is a ton of bad legislation not only looked at but passed every year. The amount of new laws that I agree with our government about probably range in the single digits, so it's not often I call it out. In this case, though, this seems to be of a particularly horrific piece of legislation.

There's a lot of moving parts and, of course, it's not finalized. But in a nutshell, the bill, intended to curb piracy, would allow the government to shut down any domain that is seen to be infringing on copyright violations. This, in and of itself, isn't particularly controversial (although, see below). The problem is that under the current wording, it gives the government an insane amount of power to combat minor as well as major crimes with the same weapon. The thresholds for violation are very, very small. For sites that depend on user content, this could easily be the end of the internet as we know it.

That, alas, is not an exaggeration. As it stands, if, say, ten videos that violate copyright are uploaded to YouTube (of the millions that are uploaded each day) it could shut YouTube down completely. Not just the offending videos, but the entire site. Same goes with any similar site: Wikipedia, Etsy, Flickr. Given that much of the internet is a collection of information submitted by the population of the world, it is not hyperbole to state that SOPA would change how the world uses the internet--and, one assumes, not for the better.

Now, there is language in the bill that seems to mitigate this--a kind of general good-faith wording about managing this content. The intention is to stop "rogue sites" that specialize in copyright infringement. But this is the exact sort of tool we want to keep out of the government's hands. What happens when, say, a Yahoo or a Facebook take a stand against an administration about some unrelated issue? All of a sudden, more violations are "discovered" and Facebook "didn't take enough action" to prevent it. The definitions are so vague that nearly any web site could be tagged as a rogue site.

It's entirely possible that the language of the bill can be altered to prevent some of these abuses, and no doubt it will. Yet it doesn't seem right; this is censorship by proxy. I hate bandying the C-word around too much, since I think it's overused by people who don't understand the definition of censorship, but this would more or less make it impractical for a company to operate like the entire Internet has for a few decades to accommodate the handful of violators.

Not helping the anti-SOPA forces? There is a large, vocal, and remarkably obnoxious segment of the population who don't agree with the concept of copyright. These come in two camps. One camp believes that intellectual property is theft and therefore copyright as a legal term should be abolished. (While there are issues with our current copyright law--such as the 70 years + death length of holding on to it, which is often over a century--disagreeing with the current state doesn't mean invalidating copyright as a concept.) Thankfully, these people are small in number, but they are noisy enough that they make all opponents look like nutjobs. Too many people take the rallying cry "Information should be free" to mean that no one should ever be compensated for their creativity, which to me just sounds like they want to listen to the newest Pixies album without paying for it.

The second, and much more numerous, segment are those who have worked up all sorts of creative justifications as to why they steal movies and music. Often people will say "I'm not hurting anyone by downloading a movie" or "If I had to pay for it, I wouldn't watch it, so I'm not denying the copyright holder any money." That doesn't negate the fact that you're stealing. The copyright holder is losing revenue they could have had, and clearly the user wanted to use the product. Just because music and movies aren't physical goods doesn't mean the rules of supply and demand don't apply. If you want to watch, say, Mission: Impossible, you have to be willing to pay the price (a couple bucks or watching some ads) or you just don't consume the product. Plenty of civil libertarians use anti-censorship rhetoric to cover up the fact that they love downloading shit.

And so there it lies. While the legislation is bad, we really only have ourselves to blame. A generation of kids have somehow worked it in their heads that denying revenue from copyright holders is some sort of constitutional right of free speech. Existing legislation (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) generally takes the right approach, so the best course of action would probably be to amend or strengthen that. Times change and there is always a need to react to new technology, so I'm not against revising or, if necessary, creating new law, but SOPA goes above and beyond acceptable limits.

The Pledge: Official political position of Crank Crank Revolution: SOPA is dopa! I claim copyright on that slogan.

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