SOPA, the Internet, and the benefits of a mutual enemy

January 20, 2012

That giant sucking sound you hear is the life being drained from SOPA and PIPA.

In an astonishingly effective campaign, a number of prominent websites decided on Jan. 18 to act as though they were being censored. SOPA — the House Stop Online Piracy Act , and PIPA, the Senate’s Protect IP Act  — would, in fact, have little or no impact on U.S. sites but the message was clear: The Net is one seamless organism. An attack on my friend, or even my enemy, is an attack on me.

The big players that made a big show of support for the anti-SOPA/PIPA cause included Wikipedia, which completely shut down its U.S. site, and and (I work for the latter, and both are owned by Condé Nast).

Some big players did not get involved in the protest, including Twitter (which even belittled Wikipedia’s demonstration as “silly”) and Facebook.

Google, a vocal opponent, redacted its name on but did permit searches. (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, Google sponsored the redacted homepage illustrated above.)

But the fact that arguably many of the biggest names in the internet business didn’t participate much or at all in the “blackout” makes it all the more fascinating that nearly 20 senators — and now all four remaining Republican presidential aspirants — now suddenly say they are against it. Friday morning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was delaying a scheduled vote on PIPA.

Last Tuesday was a turning point in the still-young history of the Web, which some argue will soon be a vestigial anachronism once smartphone and tablet apps take over the world.

But look at what happened. This isn’t an Arab Spring moment, when social media tools like Facebook and Twitter were leveraged by politically astute kids to alter the balance of power in the Middle East. No, this was the Web itself rising up in anger and showing in a very practical way what it means to even consider allowing a government to regulate — scratch that, censor — the medium. This was about not giving vengeful moneyed interests the power to starve out competitors they don’t like without fear of legal retribution by allowing (for example) credit card companies to invoke the law as a protected reason not to do business with someone.

You will excuse me for reminding you of the obvious: This is America. Even the most socially (or socialist) minded have no patience with government intruding into our private lives, and we define that perimeter very widely.

This was an issue where content owners (like Wired), who fight copyright theft every damn day, don’t see their interests as aligned with Hollywood and the music and television industries. Those industries simply overplayed their hands on a complicated issue that is fundamentally correct by siding with a few politicians to offer a cure that kills the patient. And then there were a number of thoughtful legislators who simply got this wrong.

I’ve done a number of interviews about SOPA/PIPA, and I’ll stay out on the limb on which I have crawled: These bills in their current form have no chance of passing. But, like the undead, they will rise again. Not in this election year, and not in a Congress that seems incapable of getting anything meaningful done, and not as long as Barack Obama is president. (He has said he won’t support bills like these.)

But for evil to prevail, all that is required is for good people to do nothing. When we are past the current phase, this will come up again. Hollywood and Big Music are drunk on the notion that eliminating pirated DVDs and going all whack-a-mole on foreign sites that offer torrents will mean that all those people who would have used pirated content will then go to the movies or buy tracks in iTunes instead.

They won’t. Make them customers. They clearly love your products, just not your limited distribution options. Also, you’re welcome for letting us save you from yourself.

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