Image from Joystiq
SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act and its sister bill PIPA, or the Protect Intellectual Property Act, are two of the latest in the corporate war on piracy. At least ostensibly. Point of fact, the wording of the laws are so incredibly invasive, their constitutionality should really called into question by our congressmen, much as the DMCA’s should have been. I wrote a paper about the DMCA, and a lot of my research kept taking me back to the EFF and their work to brief congress on the ill effects of such ridiculously unbalanced law. (If on the off chance anyone wants to read it, let me know. I’ll dig it up and post a PDF.)
A quick history of Copyright Legislation
The DMCA was a piece of protective legislation that applied extremely lateral judicial powers to the whims of the copyright holders. At the time, the major culprits were the RIAA and the MPAA, though the RIAA was considered the worse of the two. What the DMCA allowed the RIAA to do was request–and receive–subpoenas without having a name or really any information more identifying than an IP address. What’s worse, is there was no judicial oversight on the issuance of these subpoeans. All it took, to simplify, was filling out a form. No judge ever saw the documents, or approved the subpoena. Crazy, right?
These nameless subpoenas were served to ISPs across the nation demanding the names and addresses of the users to whom those IPs belonged. Verizon took exception to this, and refused, so the RIAA sued. A federal court ruled Verizon must comply, but it was appealed and a federal appeals court ruled against the RIAA.
SOPA and PIPA
Fast-forward to last year, when SOPA and PIPA were introduced. These two bills offer rights-holders similar widely lateral judicial leeway, but it extends so much further now. Instead of merely demanding a user, the media companies can hold hostage a website which had a user post a link to another site that has something copyrighted on it. What’s worse, the rights holders can request damages from the website with the offending user, as if the website itself were responsible! The law is so broad, and provides such unilateral judiciary power to bodies well outside the scope of judiciary authority, and all it takes a complaint form, and out go the lights. It nearly seems guilty until proven innocent.
Think about the real world repercussions of such a law. Facebook has something like 800 million active users. If 1 of those 800 million people, even one who lives outside of the USA, post a screenshot from the latest Warner Brothers film, Facebook could be blacklisted because it aided copyright infringement. Youtube has around 350 or 400 million active users. If ONE person posts a clip from the latest episode of Family Guy, Fox could pull the plug on Youtube. If Google crawls and indexes a link to a fan’s painstaking transcription of the latest Nickleback album, it just takes a complaint. And you’ve lost Google.
This is pure madness. There are no real checks and balances in place, seemingly no real recourse for the targeted site. No “innocent until proven guilty.” Just any vaguely related post by any user about anything copyrighted can land a site and its owners in hot water. It’s a piece of legislation that will breed paranoia, fear, and corporate censorship of the Internet, which has been a relatively unbridled mode of free speech for decades.
Where will it leave us?
Would you want to live on an Internet where you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs because you don’t know if big brother is watching? What if big brother were watching, and what if big brother weren’t even your government. It was corporate fat cats, waiting in the wings to censor anyone who dares talk about the product they’re trying so hard to sell? Wait a tic. Doesn’t that seem a little backward? You’re going to censor out your own product from the system by which you are likely to get the most exposure? It just makes bad business sense. Frankly, the idea is utterly terrifying to me. While I’m not typically an overly-paranoid conspiracy theory kind of guy, but the sheer invasiveness of this legislation tickles my privacy bone all kinds of wrong.
Many of you have your own websites. What happens if you have a commenter post a link to a youtube video–assuming Youtube still exists–of a copyrighted song as a response to your funny picture of a weasel? Well, if SOPA passes, YOU could be responsible. Wouldn’t that make you think twice about keeping that blog? Because you can’t control your users, and you can’t probably police everything they might post. (Well, I can. 0-4 comments per post would be pretty easy, especially since half of those are me.) This legislation would destroy the open–free–Internet as we know it.
If you don’t believe me, go take a look at the big websites around. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and a number of others I’m sure are considering a blackout for a day in protest of SOPA. Think about that. These are websites with MILLIONS of page hits a day, generating BILLIONS of dollars in ad revenues. And they feel so strongly about this legislation they’re willing to give it all up just to prove they’re serious.
Think about it. Do you want an Internet without Google? Without Reddit? Without Wikipedia? Without Youtube? Do you want an internet–an international community–which runs in fear of AMERICAN corporate interpretations of fair use? It’s a trick question, of course. You could want it all you like, but it would never exist. How could it? Corporate webmasters would be so neutered, they would just shutter their sites and move on to other ventures. Site like twitter, which were so instrumental in the OWS protests, not to mention any number of the foreign protests, could never exist. Too many users to police, too few dollars, too much risk.
We’re on the precipice of a real world-changing piece of legislation. While I wish it were something more akin to a national ban on fossil fuels, or nationalized health care, it’s an all-out assault on our first amendment rights. No. We do not have the right to thievery. We do not have a right to share anything and everything ever created. The corporations have their right to make money, too. But not at the expense of civil liberties. Not at the expense of an international tool, one considered by the UN to be a basic human need now.
Do what you can. Write your congressmen and women. Write your mom. Write your aunt. Tell them they’re at risk of losing their farmville. Whatever it takes, but do SOMETHING. We’re standing at a precipice. Don’t stand idly by while we step off it.