Oppression is something that one group of people commits against another group specifically because of a threatening characteristic shared by the latter group. - Robin Morgan
Ladieeeees and Gentlemen. Let’s get ready to rummmbbble. Tonight’s bout is between two leviathans. In one corner, weighing in with Social Media, Web 2.0, Google, Facebook, Twitter and other web applications we have the Mighty Internet. In the other corner, weighing in with the entertainment media industry, the literary industry, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the proprietary pharmaceutical industry, the software application industry and other privately owned products is Propertus Intellectus. Your referee tonight is from the U.S. Government, SOPA PIPA. You know the rules. Let’s have a fair fight.
So it would seem to be the start of the Stop Online Piracy Act. The stage was set perfectly for the fair fight. These two titans would battle each other before Congress, both flush with their lobbyists and promotional campaigns in hand. But that was before the battle went viral. Something that should have been presented to the legislature was suddenly taken to the public with a protest organized by Fight for the Future:
"Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet," Google said in a statement. "So tomorrow we will be joining many other tech companies to highlight this issue on our US home page."
I have commented on these bills on other posts, and it would seem that I have taken sides on this issue. I really haven’t. Since everything on my computer is legal and licensed, I have no real stake in this skirmish. What I am opposing is the demagoguery that has permeated the web side of this battle. Just for illustration and contrast, there was no uproar like this regarding the shutdown of international gambling sites, despite their popularity.
Inflammatory statements and doomsday predictions concerning censorship and freedom of speech abound. Captains of these tech industries feigned genuine concern for your liberties. Large scale service disruptions were planned and threatened. Social media and tech blogs fed us red meat that hadn’t seen this kind of public carnage since the FCC net neutrality rules were issued. Meanwhile, the intellectual property proponents have kept their wits about them.
The problem on both sides is that they both have very difficult and fragile enforcement challenges. To say that a movie like Avatar that had $300 million of development costs should not have its distribution and property rights protected worldwide is outrageous. To have Youtube arbitrarily shut down without legal recourse due to a subscriber indiscretion is insane. Both sides of these bills need to be knowledgeably discussed and debated at length so that a sensible conclusion can be drawn to the benefit of both sides.
As reported by Computerworld, the Obama Administration issued statements on January 14th that acknowledged the objections to SOPA/PIPA:
"While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet," said the statement which was signed by Victoria Espinel, the White House intellectual property enforcement coordinator, Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer, and Howard Schmidt, special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator for the National Security Staff.
Despite official recognition of the objections, Wikipedia, reddit.com and other nonessential websites shut down operation for a 24 hour period on January 18th. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks stayed active and fanned the flames of the lynch mob mentality.
Some technical pundits have gone vitriolic in their assessment of the entertainment industry specifically about this subject:
Hollywood's staunch and powerful support of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the House, and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) in the Senate is much maligned. In fact, one influential Silicon Valley investment firm says Hollywood is dying and it plans to help kill it by funding startups that will compete with movies and TV.
"The people who run [Hollywood] are so mean and so politically connected that they could do a lot of damage to civil liberties and the world economy on the way down. It would therefore be a good thing if competitors hastened their demise," reads a post on Y Combinator's website, which also argues that files-haring isn't going to be what kills movies and TV, better ways to entertain people will.
My point is this:
Although both sides have valid points, the web side has stolen the narrative. For all the prattle about lobbying and private industry involvement in our government, this is exactly how these internet private companies are manipulating the American public. The same people that have supported OWS and opposed the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Board decision are playing into the hysterical rhetoric of this smear campaign like puppets on a string targeted by an industry that has, at the very least, tolerated piracy and in some cases, actively supported it in search results.
The worst part is that childish and irresponsible service interruptions at the whim of the providers have become acceptable. The sites that went dark were relatively insignificant for this protest. The intellectual property side has remained relatively silent, but could also schedule service interruptions for things like election coverage, sporting events (like the Super Bowl, or Gawrd forbid, NASCAR) or your favorite television shows. While free market advocates will claim that a right to protest for private enterprises is akin to the Citizens United ruling, disrupting continuity of service to promote a selfish agenda is something that the government does not do as a matter of policy.
This type of activity makes the opportunistic and predatory American version of the capitalism model look ridiculous to outsiders. For all of the criticism of socialism that comes from America, activities like this make socialist countries feel good about themselves.