01/22/12

What’s wrong with SOPA and PIPA?


Ever wonder what the fuss was about the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA)? This video really explains it well. Both acts basically make everyone online guilty of piracy because we have the potential to steal simply by owning a computer connected to the Internet. It will be up to the user (you) to prove he or she is not doing it. As the speaker in the video says, the big media companies want consumers; not producers, not creators, and certainly not people sharing: just consuming what they are fed.

As noted in a story in The Christian Science Monitor,

In short, critics say, Congress is looking for a 20th-century answer to a 21st-century challenge… The deeper problem… is that the music and film industries simply haven’t adapted quickly enough to the new realities of the online world, and are instead trying to use Congress to prop up outdated practices.

‚ÄúSOPA will prevent innovation in order to prevent piracy,” says Vince Leung, cofounder of the social media site, MentorMob.com. This has been a problem with every one of the US’s recent copyright changes and protection acts since the late Sonny Bono’s meddling. They protect the monetary investments of media corporations, while stifling the creative abilities of artists and producers. Artists and producers sharing content are not creating profit-making consumers for the corporations, so are a threat that must be stopped.

As a Canadian, I have no direct way to protest SOPA and PIPA, but both will have a huge impact on how I use the Net, what I produce, what I record, write, link, or share. Even if it’s legal in Canada to do so, my acts may become illegal in the USA and my site (or sites in Canada and elsewhere that I post on) may be punished for potentially breaking the laws of a foreign state even though I don’t reside or work there. I don’t actually have to break those laws, merely have the potential to do so. And it puts the onus on me to defend myself legally (in the USA, not in Canada), repair my reputation and restore my site if I am accused from afar.

But it gets crazier: if my site gets blocked, every site that has a link to my content – including Google and other search engines, or Facebook – gets blocked (guilt by association). Any site that sends me money or I use for sales or donations, has to block me, too. So even if what I did was not illegal in Canada, that act can take down dozens, maybe hundreds of other sites unless they shut me out. And I don’t have to actually have done anything illegal, either: all it needs is someone in the recording industry or other media firm to accuse me of doing it. The act says I can be shut down without proof or warning, and I can’t sue the company or companies for causing damage to my site or reputation even if I prove my innocence later.

So let’s say I find a fun video of a ukulele player doing a cover version of a popular song on YouTube. I post the video on this blog using the embed feature (as I’ve done here with these videos). Even though it’s only a link, and I’m not actually hosting the content – and I did not make or contribute to the video – by sharing it I could be accused of having copyright material on my site. YouTube becomes guilty, of course. Several other sites that take my RSS feeds become guilty. Google and Bing become guilty because I have an SEO package that provides links and keywords for search engines. Because I take donations, Paypal would be forced to cut off my account. My site – along with all these others could be removed from the DNS servers so you can’t find it by name. All this without prior warning or any other notice. I’d just wake up and find it had vanished when I typed in the name.

And what if I just post a text link to a site that has that video, and don’t embed it? Even though nothing shows on my site, I’m still guilty by association. Simply having a link makes me guilty and I can be blocked and even sued. I can even be sued if the other site has copyright material I don’t link to, and didn’t even know about. The link alone is sufficient to make me a criminal.

How Stalinist is that? Shy of actually having the secret police take me and my family away in the middle of the night, I can’t imagine anything as extreme or unjust as that.

The issue is a morass of themes: censorship, freedom of speech, copyright, liability, ownership of intellectual property, corporate lobbying and political control by one state over the Internet. What’s really scary is that the main people in charge of the debate are elderly American politicians whose appreciation, understanding and knowledge of how computers and the Net work is limited by their age and inexperience. My cat knows more about string theory than most of these politicians know about the Internet. Not to mention how vulnerable these politicians are to the lobbying efforts of the bills’ supporters (money always speaks loudly).

Whose problem is piracy? The companies’? or the government’s? Is it a private sector service problem or a public legal issue? Whose money should pay to fight it: company profits or your tax dollars? Whose rights are more important: the board of directors of the media corporations or the millions and millions of users who demand a change in the laws to recognize the new reality of the Net? None of this is resolved by these bills. The concepts of sharing, the trust economy, open source and open data, cooperative creativity, free expression, and independent artistry that underly the Net are simply being ignored in favour of a punitive approach.

Which is the greater threat to media companies: a few people sharing files online or the thousands of pirate companies in China and Asia making ripoff DVDs, CDs and other products that end up for sale in North America and Europe? So why aren’t the legislators taking aim at China to stem this practice? Why can’t they block Chinese goods from being imported into the USA, or slap high tariffs on them until the piracy is stopped? Do corporate interests in maintaining a good manufacturing relationship with China make it so profitable the USA can afford to ignore this problem?

How would the USA react if another country passed a law that said any foreign site that mentioned Tianamen Square, Tibetan freedom or the Dalai Lama would be blocked? Oh wait, doesn’t China already do that? In fact, SOPA/PIPA as proposed are remarkably similar to existing Chinese, Syrian, Iranian and North Korean censorship of the Net.

Why has there been so little traditional media coverage of this issue and so little editorial condemnation compared to online commentary and protest? Could it be that the same media companies pushing for this bill are those that control the content of the media that gives us the news on TV, radio and in print?

The result from these bills will be more sales for Hollywood movies, but fewer social media tools or outlets for expression for independent artists, producers, political commentators, bloggers, musicians and filmmakers. They will force creativity to go underground to hidden places on the Net, just like witchcraft laws forced fledgling scientists, philosophers, herbalists and doctors to hide in the Dark Ages. These bills will kill the kind of social change we saw in the Arab Spring movement.

I’m not condoning illegal activity, but these inappropriate and undemocratic proposals presuppose guilt without any due process of law. If this is truly such a large-scale problem, then we need proper solutions that match the reality of the connected 21st century, not this leg-hold-and-stockade approach from the 20th.