Lessons from SOPA
Comments from the White House and several members of Congress suggest that SOPA and PIPA have lost steam and, if the vote scheduled for Thursday occurs at all, it will be watered-down, more precisely worded, legislation that is voted on. So everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, because free speech and democracy won out over corporate interests and oppressive government regulation, right? Well, kind of.
Let me be up front in stating what I believe to be facts about the SOPA/PIPA controversy: 1. As originally written, SOPA and PIPA gave alarmingly broad enforcement power to federal regulators. 2. The primary impulse for the regulative legislation came from Hollywood lobbyists. 3. Public outcry against the legislation had a lot to do with its fading popularity in DC. Here’s what I like about the controversy and the way the public was able to make legislators think twice: 1. Public participation in the U.S. political process is good, especially when it is outside the narrow confines of a Presidential election; participation is our counter to those corrupt politicians and evil corporate interests we hear so much about, so the more the better. 2. Washington should think carefully before granting broad power to a regulatory agency, because it is never clear how that power will be exercised.
Having said all that, I have major problems with both the content of recent protests and what those protests imply about our society. What follows are the five main points that I think everyone should consider and/or remember, following the panic that engulfed the net over the last 48 hours.
1. SOPA supporters have a point. Hollywood and other SOPA proponents have a legitimate cause for concern, and it’s probably far more legitimate than claims from Wikipedia that SOPA “[facilitates] Internet censorship”. There are a lot of sinister aspects to a lot of sinister legislation, and SOPA may be sinister, but not because it is aimed at censoring the web. The only interest SOPA has in censoring web content is in censoring content that is not licensed. And as well it should; the music industry, for example, is down to about half of what it was in 1973, with the average American’s music spending having shrunk to a third of what it was ten years ago, and pirating is by far the largest (note: not the only) culprit. Granted, as I mentioned, music is not the main industry lobbying for SOPA, and I am not about to get worked up if Will Smith’s trailer on MIB XXVLI shrinks by a couple yards because Columbia’s DVD sales are lagging due to streaming downloads. But hey, people produce content – at least in part – for profit, and it’s their right to seek just compensation if that content is accessed illegally. It’s unfair and perhaps a little immature for everyone to lose their shit because stuff that costs money to make might no longer be free; when mom and dad check your phone and find out you’ve been siphoning Absolut from the liquor cabinet, yeah you can moan about the privacy violation and the injustice, but you also have to stop steeling mom’s vodka.
2. Everyone’s a sucker for free speech. The PATRIOT Act is the obvious analogy that a lot of people have run with, but SOPA is not the PATRIOT Act. For one, SOPA says nothing about original content, for which the net has, and continues to be, an encouraging safe haven. Furthermore, The PATRIOT Act massively extended the government’s ability to define and monitor suspicious activity and people, and while the punishment that the original SOPA may have allowed federal agencies to dole out may have been a bit heavy-handed and free-wielding, it is not targeted at exercises of free speech, but exercises of theft of intellectual property; other than sharing unlicensed information, SOPA would not restrict your freedom to publish whatever you choose on the internet. The commonly held belief that SOPA is an internet censorship bill is a major achievement of mass deception by anti-SOPA zealots and ignoramuses. The PATRIOT Act, however, is relevant to this discussion, primarily because its proponents used cries for national defense to rally support in the same way that anti-SOPA people are now using cries for free speech to drum up dissent. Although different, both agendas were pursued with an over-simplification of a complicated question and a tactful, yet somewhat despicable, appeal to common American values.
3. Net neutrality is more complicated than Hollywood v. Wikipedia, or pirates v. government. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a scary thought; some corrupt politician or greedy corporation marauding about the net, censoring whatever it/he/she doesn’t like, blocking access, arbitrarily silencing voices, covering eyes, it makes me shiver. So, yes, I’m glad that Google blacked-out its logo in protest and helped stop SOPA from obstructing the free internet and – **OH WAIT**, I forgot, in August of 2010, Google proposed a set of anti-net neutrality rules to the FCC that would have done just that. When it comes to the web, net neutrality is the closest thing we have to the First Amendment, and Google, in conjunction with Verizon, made a serious attempt to repeal that neutrality and codify the sort of wireless discrimination practices that make mobile access so pricey, and so lucrative. Paul Watson of Infowars.com put it well, when he commented that Google’s interest in blocking SOPA is not about protecting the web from censorship, but about securing web censorship rights for transnational corporations like itself. If our goal is a free and affordable internet, then we should choose our allies wisely. Which brings me to my next point:
4. No matter whose side you’re on, you’re on someone’s side. A lot was made of the Hollywood lobby’s involvement and support for this legislation, and sure, the influence that money can buy in Washington upsets me too, but surprisingly little was said about the influence that web corporations were able to exert throughout this whole thing. Personally, I’m more creeped out that Wikipedia was able to convince a couple dozen million people that their tweets were about to be screened by the government, than I am that Matt Damon might be suing me for linking to a youtube clip of him kicking ass. When Obama and member of Congress started backing away from SOPA, were they favoring the rights of the people, or simply balancing their support for one lobbying industry with support for another? I’m not a big conspiracy theory guy, but think about how much influence web giants were able to exert on the public in the last couple days; it’s not not creepy.
5. Our priorities are ALL fucked up. I could go digging on Google and come up with some death toll or some tragic photographs of events that occurred as the result of action (or lack their of) on the part of our government, but there are too many examples to make picking one or two worthwhile. How many times have our elected officials done things that brought devastating, undue harm to others while we did nothing? But fuck with our free downloads and yeah, we’ll post a status about that, we’ll sign a petition, we’ll call our Congressman, we’ll even think about going to a rally. I’m just as guilty as anyone, so please don’t take this as a lecture, but maybe some of you will join me, and use this SOPA experience as an opportunity to learn to be more aware of what our government is doing on our behalf.
DISCLAIMER: No SOPA clauses have been violated in the writing of this post. Well, maybe a few.