The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are two bills currently mingling in the United States House of Representatives. It would take too much time and effort for me to explain how ludicrous it is that we have misinformed politicians writing litigation for an internet that they apparently do not understand. Instead, I’ll assume you understand the basics of these bills, and I’ll just point out my favorite things I’ve seen relating to them as the bills have progressed. If you do not understand these bills and are confused by an internet search for them (they are extremely complicated), you can ask me about them apart from the blog, and I’d be happy to explain them to you as best I can.
So, these bills just stop online piracy, right? How could stopping illegal activity be bad? This is the notion being perpetuated by the media, the MPAA and RIAA, and some big copyright holders–translation, the supporters of the bill. It’s also a sentiment shared by people who generally don’t understand how the internet works. The truth is, these bills do far more in what they don’t say than in what they do say. Ultimately, they’re creating an internet blacklist controlled by the government. Translation: government censorship.
The bills were proposed by a Republican Congressman from Texas named Lamar Smith. Yes, this is the same Lamar Smith who got the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed. It’s also the same Lamar Smith who has admitted that he does not have a full understand of the internet. Two things seem ironic here: first, we have politicians who admit that they do not fully understand “something” passing legislation against that “something”. Second, we have apparently “small government” Republicans trying to pass censorship bills.
Today, the Internet Blackout is taking place, and it’s essentially the first day the media corporations have at least nodded their head in the direction of this legislation. Why? The bills have been tossed around for months. By all appearances, it would appear that the media was trying to keep the bills hushed up so they would quickly pass. Unfortunately, the internet giants have made sure to get the word out. Only now, after people have started hearing about the bills through other sources, has the media started covering them. That makes sense, considering the MPAA, RIAA, and other media outlets have financially supported the drafting of the bills.
When SOPA was shelved last weekend, that was the first time the media really covered the story. They were very careful to use strong language like “killed” and “terminated” in reference to the SOPA bill. However, the bill was not “killed”. It was temporarily shelved, sure to come back in the near future (quietly, they’ve said they’re taking it back off the shelf in February … that’s not far from now). And there sure was a lot of attention focused on SOPA being shelved when PIPA was still alive and well, proceeding toward a vote.
There are several provisions at the beginning of the SOPA bill which state the bill intends to defend the First Amendment, protect the integrity of the internet, and promote cyber security. Interestingly, the very nature of the bill breaks down each of those things, which illustrates the lack of understanding the drafters of the bill have in regards to the internet.
This next point is particularly controversial, but SOPA and PIPA assume all forms of copyright infringement are intentional and inherently evil. Recent surveys indicate that over 20% of Americans have pirated something at some time. Over 70% of Americans 25-35. And over 90% of Americans under the age of 25. Does this mean 90% of Americans 25 and under are actively striving to steal? No, it means that the very nature of the internet is advertising and publicity. It may seem a stretch to suggest that piracy is publicity, but it’s no more a stretch than the MPAA and RIAA make when stating that every pirated download is a lost sale. More importantly, however, this illustrates that much of the internet’s piracy is not intentional theft, and therefore cannot be counted as “lost sales.”
Lamar Smith, lead supporter and Congressman who introduced the bill to the house, actually illegally hosted copyright material on his website until a few weeks ago. The background image of his website was a photograph taken by DJ Schulte, used without permission. The website went down shortly after a news article pointed this out, and the image has since been removed. However, SOPA doesn’t have any clauses for forgiveness. He hosted copyrighted content without permission. Shouldn’t he be held responsible? This is not an example of how copyright infringement is okay or should be tolerated. This is illustrating how even well-intentioned websites would be subject to blocking merely because they inadvertently used copyright infringing material.
But Alex, you say, shouldn’t copyright holders be able to force someone to take their content down if they are using it without permission? Yes. And they can. There are already laws in place for that. SOPA is not meant to do that, SOPA is meant to give the government the ability to force blocking those websites.
Of course, under SOPA Lamar’s website would not actually be taken down. SOPA strives to block foreign websites, as most copyright infringing hosts are not domestic to the United States. An example of this used time and time again is ThePirateBay.org, a Swedish website, Hollywood’s nemesis, that hosts torrents of anything and everything. Unfortunately for Congress, though the registrar and servers to ThePirateBay are foreign, the registry of the domain is hosted on a .org domain, which is actually domestic to the United States. Some have argued whether this is truly what the bill meant to say, so it may prove to be a moot point, but on the surface it certainly looks like their poster child for evil is immune from the bill.
When chief analysts and internet architects (including Vint Cerf [TCP/IP], Jim Gettys [HTTP/1.1], Leonard Kleinrock [ARPANET], and more … read: “the guys who created the internet”) approached Lamar and Congress to explain to them that their bill was fundamentally flawed, would break the internet, and would destroy the constructs of cyber security, Congressman Smith replied by saying that the opinions of the opposition “do not matter.” Which, in my opinion, is a great way to get re-elected. He also went on to say that the opposition was a “small minority” of the internet. Really? You would consider hundreds of millions of users, not to mention every internet giant and nearly every other tech corporation to be a “minority”? I guess we’ll see how big a “minority” can be after the petition results come out after today.
After the bill started receiving heated response from the internet community, the White House came out with their opinion on the matter. They expressed that they did not approve of the bills, and it was implied that President Obama would simply veto the bills if they were passed. This was when SOPA was shelved. However, when asked about the White House’s response, Lamar and other SOPA supporters said they were “glad to have the support of the White House,” and that they were now “looking forward to pushing this bill through to passing.” Sounds like denial to me.
Ultimately, this legislation does nothing to stop the problem they claim to be solving: piracy. It slaps a band-aid on a symptom (or at least tries to), but in doing so it sinks to the level of China’s internet censorship. The proposed laws also draw very solid lines in where the government would have to stop censoring. Copyright protection laws already exist. SOPA and PIPA merely try to take the burden of maintaining their rights off of the copyright holders and moving them onto the content providers. For small providers, this might be manageable. But for giants like Google, Facebook, or Twitter, it’s absurd to suggest that those companies should monitor what their users are doing (First Amendment violation) and remove linked content based on what another website is doing.
What I have pointed out are only surface level absurdities to the SOPA and PIPA bills proposed. I have many other opinions when it comes to matters of piracy, the figures of monetary “losses” the MPAA and RIAA claim each year that are apparently due to pirating, and internet censorship. But it would take far too many blogs to explain all of those as well. But it comes down to the fact that the verbiage of the bills is tamper not just with the content of the internet, but with the security and the infrastructure of the web as well. They may appear to simply be “protecting copyright material”, but you shouldn’t just rip up a street because the street may lead to an unrepeatable city, or to the house of a thief. Go arrest the thief. Don’t prohibit anyone from driving on a road near him. And, as Congressman Lamar Smith should probably learn, you may want to better define what a “thief” truly is.
If you’re interested in understanding the evils of SOPA and PIPA, check out this article on reddit—the Devil is in the details. I also strongly urge you to sign Google’s petition against SOPA and PIPA before January 24th.