The SOPA Problem
The entire internet has been abuzz with talk of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the U.S. that is sleazing its way through the Judiciary Committee as we speak. Originally planned to be pushed back to January, they’ve since decided to try to quietly pass this piece of utter rubbish possibly this week. So what does this mean for our little corner of the internet?
Let’s talk first about what SOPA is and what it seeks to do. It is a bill introduced into the House of Representatives in October that essentially piggy backs off another bill, both seeking to protect intellectual and artistic property from copyright infringement. In theory this all sounds reasonable. You may hear “I have a copyrighted product that I’d like to protect that so it’s not used without my permission.” That’s all well and good, but it’s not exactly that simple. It’s also why we have copyright laws. This bill would ensure that the offended party could get a court order against the offender to stop it all from happening. Surely there is a part of me that understands the desire to do so, but do we really need to take it this far?
What you don’t see right away is the far reaching possible consequences of something like SOPA. Say a court order is brought against some offending party. Then other websites will not be able to do business with that website. You won’t be able to search for that website. You won’t be able to get to that website. So now we’ve moved beyond protecting intellectual property to dictating who people can do business with and what websites they can visit. This amounts to dictating who people can communicate with. To put it calmly; not cool.
It gets worse.
Let’s say that you haven’t really thought about it. And you’ve decided to make a delightful montage of pictures of your new baby niece and put it all together in a YouTube video. For some ungodly reason you’ve chosen to use a Nickelback song for this. Nickelback can then launch a complaint and you in all your best intentions will have committed a felony against the US government punishable by up to five years in prison.
That was just a small example of what they are telling us all is the entire purpose of the bill, but it’s a slippery slope on a hill we’re not likely to climb back up if this bill passes. People are touting it as “the end of the internet as we know it.” I simply say it is the end of the internet.
The internet is not just streaming bad songs, pirating movies or grabbing a funny copyrighted image to post to Facebook. The internet is also our most valuable highway of information. It is quite possibly our most valuable resource in a world that threatens to fall into apathy as soon as it’s not stimulated in a convenient way. Entire social movements have been conceived of and brought to life on the internet. People from all over the world can actively participate in the things that are entirely free for everyone – information, ideas, opinions, and artistic expression.
This bill will quite possibly obliterate the freedom we have to learn what we choose to learn, read what we want to read, and listen to what we want to listen to. SOPA is essentially one giant firewall to tell you that what you’re trying to see is blocked by your company, which in this case is the US Government. How long before the government starts deciding what is “appropriate” for us on a moral or ethical level and not just on a business level? Don’t I get to make that decision for myself as a functional adult in a country that has long been about free speech and my right to choose how to live my life? There are awful things on the internet. There are terrible, disturbing, upsetting, and monstrous things on the internet. And they all have every right to be there. And I have every right to look at them or not look at them as I see fit.
By now I might be losing some of you. You may have decided that there is no way it would ever get that bad and I have clearly seen the movie V for Vendetta far too many times (actually I only saw it once and didn’t think it was that great). Okay then, we’ll take something smaller, maybe something that hits a little closer to home for our gaming community.
Many communities, not just gamers, but especially fandoms of television shows, games, movies, books, etc. actively produce insane amounts of fan art or fan fiction. The subject matter, characters, places and ideas in these pieces of art are usually not the intellectual property of the artist producing them. Most artists like to mention that the original ideas do not belong to them, but what if that slips their mind to do so? And soon even doing that is not officially enough. You can kiss Reddit and Tumblr goodbye as that is essentially just copying and pasting from a string of other blogs where each was probably not the original source of content to begin with. You can watch as the aforementioned YouTube videos disappear because someone wanted to use a particular song or piece of video for something.
Not only is the idea of this incredibly frustrating for those of us who enjoy these sort of things, but there are bigger problems too. Entire livelihoods are at stake. Folks such as this guy, who runs Unreality.com feel like their very existence is being threatened. His argument in this article brings to light a rather shocking fine print, one which states that even linking to a site that has been deemed inappropriate can get you into serious trouble.
In fairness, I understand the desire to protect your IP. Most people will happily pay money for something that they want. There is piracy out there. And maybe it’s a serious problem, but I can’t help but feel like we’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water here. Punishing the whole for the crimes of the few. Stripping people of basic rights for any reason, even one with good intentions, like “protection” sounds a bit like fascism to me, even if it’s very subtle.
Several different counter measures are already being talked about just in case they decide to trample on the Constitution further and put SOPA into place. Lifehacker has here a DeSopa add-on for Firefox. No doubt there will be other efforts to counter this should it take effect. All is probably not lost, but until I know otherwise I’ll be vocal about this and I urge people to do the same.