Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA on a ropa




It came as no surprise to anyone who really uses the Internet.

Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, they all went down for the day.  Even Google draped itself black while remaining operable.  All of it a symbolic gesture of opposition to House legislation known as SOPA—Stop Online Privacy Act and its Senate equivalent, PIPA—Protect IP Act.

The idea behind the bills introduced to Congress isn’t terribly oppressive.  It stems mainly from media companies who want to protect their property.  Any rational person, especially those of us in the creative arts, can surely appreciate wanting to protect the fruits of their labors.  The problem lies with the way in which the bills were written, including sweeping powers and vague wording.  Ripe soil for the Law of Unintended Consequences to take root and grow.  Here are a few features of SOPA that Rebecca McKinnon outlined in The New York Times:

“The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial. The House version goes further, allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright — a sharp change from current law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification. The intention is not the same as China’s Great Firewall, a nationwide system of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar.”

In The New Yorker, Nicholas Thompson cites how status updates are handled in India as an example of this aforementioned effect.  Imagine updating your status on Facebook and receiving “Hold on while we review this status update to make sure that it doesn’t include an unauthorized clip from ‘The Artist.’”

This is not a good idea, folks.  In fact, it’s just another case of legislators and their staff cobbling together a bill without fully understanding the subject it entails.  My brothers Dr. Rich and Ahab Pope both posted this YouTube clip of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) putting quite succinctly what the problem is as he compares the legislation to doing surgery on a body without a doctor present to show where all the organs sit.  Chaffetz ends by saying, "bring in the nerds."  I'm truly heartened by his statements, both in that there is great leadership coming from a young person and a measured, well-reasoned response from a Republican, proving to me that there are plenty of sane and intelligent individuals in that political party. 
Both opposition and support for SOPA and PIPA come from all shades of the political spectrum but as always it’s interesting to follow the money.  One of the main proponents of SOPA is Texas Rep. Lamar Smith.  The top contributors to him as a candidate have been from the entertainment industry.

Like many other issues of our day, this one has been spun into a story of polarizing dissonance.  “Big Money versus persnickety and whiny cyberpunks” or the like.  “The Internet has gone dark” headlines proclaimed of today, even the majority of sites are still up and functioning just fine.  Twitter users have been speaking out in droves against SOPA over the past few days.  The one lone dissenter against the crowd that I have seen came from @rupertmurdoch.  Is anybody surprised by that?

As usual, the truth lies in the middle.  Someone who creates something, whether it is written, drawn, or what have you, has the right to protect it.  No question. 
There just has to be a smarter and more practical way to do it than SOPA.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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