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 reddit.com and wired.com (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 Google.com but did permit searches. (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, Google sponsored the redacted wired.com 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.

8 comments

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Is there room for copyrighted, for-profit material on the internet? This is a question well worth thinking through for those of us who see hope for mankind in the free internet as opposed to those who see it as a way to line their pockets by using the labor and inventiveness of tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals who have made the internet what it is today. While these “intellectual property” “owners” profit from the free technology infrastructure, they have decided to hijack the net and bully their overly idealistic hosts. But not while granting either money or respect to those whose efforts they steal.

Make no mistake, “intellectual property” is the stuff of overpriced, underperforming, inflexible network technology. Almost none of the infrastructure used today originated from accounting groups cashing royalty checks. Yet now they want to own the net, and to own and control everyone on the planet that uses it. Perhaps the copyright holders would like to control their products by developing their *OWN* technology for distribution and tracking rather than taking a technological wonder from humanity. Then, they can do what they want with it. But using the political power of a single nation state noted for having a “Government for Sale” structure to bully the planet is a good way to attract very hostile attention that they certainly do not want.

This is not an issue that the Federal Government wants to start a technological conflict with. The USA is already behind technologically, especially for large and governmental organizations. Being bought off by a bunch of Hollywood accountants and losing support of the technological community would be right up there with all time blunders.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

If SOPA threatens our free speech, it should be fixed, not ditched.

As I understand it, the purpose of this bill is not just to protect large entertainment corporations. It is also to protect the right of creative professionals to earn a living from their work.

Consider that iTunes and Pandora give music consumers everything they could hope for, yet many still steal music. So clearly, these consumers just want something for nothing. Try to take that away and they complain that you are endangering their right to free speech. If they were really concerned about free speech, they would be raising an uproar about Facebook censoring photos of babies breast feeding – because Facebook considers them “obscene” – and about Google manipulating search results.

Of course, Google has a huge financial stake in providing access to content, whether it is legal or not. They make money from advertising, not content creation. So they are actually less noble than they like to appear. And Wikipedia is eager to jump on a popular bandwagon to get more donation dollars and look heroic.

As for Wired.com, any copyright infringement issues you face are fundamentally different from those faced by the entertainment industry. People come to your web site because it is a source of free information. Consumers don’t visit pirate websites to download your content. This is because there is no cost to visit your web site. So actually, like Google, you don’t sell content. You sell advertising. Your business model is feasible for magazine articles that take several hours or days to create. But it does not work for music tracks and movies that take months and millions of dollars to produce.

Ultimately, what you are really demanding is that royalty-dependent creative professionals beg for a living. Why don’t you try that with Wal-Mart? Tell them to make payment for their merchandise optional. See what reaction you get.

If wealthy Chinese factory owners must get paid for the merchandise they sell in Walmart, why shouldn’t struggling American content creators also get paid for what they produce?

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

Reuters may *claim* that it will have little to no impact on USA sites, but Reuters would be entirely wrong.

SOPA and PIPA directly undermine the security of the DNS system, because the technical details behind the blocking mechanisms would fracture the security scheme and make it much much easier for hackers to exploit.

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive

People who are used for getting content for free will never be customers.

Posted by DmitryGaranin | Report as abusive

Billionaires created SOPA – - and fought against it – - Hollywood, MLB, NFL, NBA
in favor – - Zuckerberg, Brin & Page (Google), David Filo and Jerry Yang (Yahoo) etc., opposed
http://www.billionairechronicles.net/bil lionaires-split-sopa

Posted by Notabillionaire | Report as abusive

@DifferentOne you’re wrong about a couple of things, which I’ll address briefly before I answer your large point.

Wired copy is pirated. It is taken and put on other sides ad ads are sold around it. This is exactly like the issue facing entertainment industry, whose product is given away on torrent sites.

Nobody who enjoys pirated content complains about free speech abridgment when it is take away. Free speech issues are about speech, not listening. The party making a Free Speech argument could only be the thief, and that would be absurd.

The bills make a sop about protecting everyone, but they contain provisions that favor the industries backing them. There are lots of ways to increase copyright and trademark infringement that don’t require the overbroad sanctions available under these bills.

I also have no doubt that there would be consensus if they were altered to trim closer to DMCA. As it is, a sanction can be shuttering an entire site if one piece of pirated content is on it. That’s meant to be a strong deterrent, but it can easily be used to intimidate legitimate sites making good-faith efforts to comply with the law. Which every company you name already does.

ITunes and Pandora don’t give everyone what everyone wants. Not even Netflix or Hulu do — though they are in the business these bills are really about (movies and TV shows, not music). Hollywood doesn’t have to figure out how to adjust their business model to cater to the evolving demand of a mobile, a la carte customer base. They can fight that tide all they want. They also don’t have to survive.

Piracy exists because a) some people think its fun and b) because it is a leading indicator of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The studios have never been able to establish any monetary loss for piracy — let’s concede there is some, but nothing even approaching the dollar-for-dollar argument they make and can’t prove.

That is the real tragedy here. There is an opportunity to refine current law as mist be done in fast-moving times, and instead Congress acted the old fashioned way: by catering to lobbyists and vested interests and not casting a wide net for informed opinion by people who actually known things before they made fools of themselves.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

Burns0011 The DNS registry altering provision had already been removed. However I was referring to the fact that U.S. sites per se were not covered by the bills. I also say that the Internet is one, big, impossible-to-divide-up organism, so …

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

@DmitryGaranin I agree. Which makes hunting them down and punishing them pointless, one might thus argue. And further argue that any bill which threatens innocent bystanders in a futile attempt to punish incorrigibles is dangerous. Having said that, protecting IP is a no brainer. You just need more brains than were deployed to craft SOPA & PIPA to get it right.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive