PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.
The expression, “freedom isn’t free” is cheap, jingoistic and only occasionally true. At certain times, those freedoms are earned at an undeniably tragic and high cost, but at other times, those freedoms are found in the wreckage of outdated thinking as it collides with new-school reality.
Case in point are the discussions about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which will continue in the US Senate and House of Representatives tomorrow for a vote next week. The argument for these acts is lightweight and outdated: mainly that the US internet infrastructure could be open to hackers who seek to damage the ways in which our country communicates and conducts business online, while also working to stop rampant media piracy and copyright infringement which have plagued the Internet since the days of peer-to-peer file transfer applications. The arguments against SOPA and PIPA, however, are a bit more complex, mostly due to the utter lack of transparency with which the US government has proposed them.
What lies underneath SOPA and PIPA is what amounts to a Patriot Act-like magic bullet that could ostensibly be fired by the US government at any site deemed in breach of the terms in these respective bills, without any due process or trial, any formal charges, etc. It simply boils down to the government having the right to censor any site it doesn’t like, without ever having to explain why. Any site, blog, photo gallery, application – anything that doesn’t meet the US standard. .com, .net, .tv, .edu, .xxx, .co
Censorship is a powerful little word that gets thrown around a lot, often by people looking to make a huge stink out of a bad situation. In the case of SOPA and PIPA, however, it’s absolutely at the core of the problem.
Major online powerhouses – the most crucial being Google – have said that there are plenty of other ways for the government to protect our communications and economic infrastructures from outside attacks, that would be just as effective as anything in SOPA or PIPA, and all without that magic bullet. It’s certainly a nice argument, and it feels right, but Google isn’t exactly the cleanest guy in the fight. Over the past few years, Google has been (rightly) taken to task for privacy issues, and it’s hard to back them in any conversation about the right to personal freedom on the Internet. Wikipedia, however, has always been Switzerland – a neutral home for nerds and jocks to meet anonymously and share information. It’s precisely because of Wikipedia’s neutrality that their very public stand against SOPA and PIPA is so noteworthy; their English platform will join thousands of other sites tomorrow in a show of solidarity, by “going dark” for the day. The decision to do so, like so many of the 3.8 million entries on their English site, was reached by a democratic discussion amongst a few thousand editors who understand that, “Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, [but] its existence is not.”
What SOPA and PIPA boil down to is the government kowtowing to the entertainment industry and trust me, there are no winners in that fight.
There’s no good argument that disproves the facts about copyright infringement on the Internet. It’s there, it happens every second of every day, and I’m pretty confident that almost everyone who reads this will have played a roll in it. No matter how I assuage my own guilt, the fact remains that I have illegally downloaded music, TV shows and software over many years because it made it cheaper, easier and more enjoyable to get stuff done. So have you.
But let’s look at the overall cultural change which has occurred since those early days when Napster made it routine to share your favorite Metallica song with total disregard to their bottom line. It’d be easy to claim that an unending torrent of “free” media – most of which is not free – has diluted the quality content of days passed, but that argument is facile. As often as I bemoan the ease with which anyone can find their 15 minutes of fame today, I would not be here, not writing in my own blog, not as the person I am, were it not for the way in which I’ve consumed media over the past 15 or so years. The internet is a big sandbox of ideas and connections and any conversation about personal responsibilities on the web is worth having, albeit in another forum. But it’s simply impossible to ignore that this sandbox (and its Wild West mentalities) has also allowed an inestimable population of students, young and old, to learn skills related to writing, art, filmmaking, music and a ton of other outlets for expression.
The Internet must be free from prying eyes who seek to control who can stay and who must go, what can be said or transmitted, and to whom. As with most things in life, you’ve gotta take the good with the bad. Sure, illegal arms trades, gambling, hate speech and child pornography should be monitored, and in extreme instances, policed, but the only people who oppose that are the people who engage in it. Copyright infringement is a problem, but the day the film and music industries stopped generating anything born from original thought and simply started catering to the whims of whatever audiences they could find, was the day they stopped having a right to sit on some high horse. Show me the key grip or the studio engineer who suffers financially because I downloaded the latest episode of “Homeland” and I will point out that they work in an outmoded industry and they need to adjust for the times. It’ll be tough for them to do so, but not impossible. And you know how they’ll learn? Probably by Googling their questions and finding answers on Wikipedia. That can not and must not change.
I implore you to take a few minutes and get educated about SOPA and PIPA, call your representative and express your outrage at anyone who wants to make it easier for someone you don’t know to monitor what you do on the Internet.
What is SOPA? [Gizmodo]