A View on SOPA from a Canadian Tech CompanyPosted: December 24, 2011
The last few weeks have seen a growing surge of discussion about SOPA (the Stop Online Privacy Act) with a huge wave of discussion washing over the internet in the last couple of days. This legislation is, in my view, poorly thought out and threatens to neuter the widespread benefits of the internet for sharing information.
What is SOPA?
I have not read the legislation in full, but have read pieces of it on blog posts, Reddit, Techcrunch, and thousands of comments in article threads. In a nut shell, SOPA will allow the disabling of sites that have violated the content rights of another party. Essentially, at the DNS level, a site can be turned off to US site visitors if a site is accused of infringing on other’s content rights. While I understand that content owners have a right to protect their work, I think it was said best in an article I read that, and I paraphrase, this is a “nuclear bomb for the internet when a surgical strike is necessary”.
Why is This a Concern?
The internet has allowed, for the first time in human history, everyone to have a voice. Information a hundred years may have taken weeks or months to spread and was controlled and shaped by media forces now happens instantly. News wires and printed news papers allowed for word to spread more quickly, but with a delay of a day. Radio and Television were again faster, but like newspapers, suffered from editorial control whereby stories could be spun, ignored or made more important than they really were. The internet gave the people a voice. Unfiltered, on the ground, often wrong and without citation. But it also allows people to their truth to the world, as they see it, in real time.
Not only has the internet democratized information and made the sharing of information real time, the last ten years have led to a cultural revolution of independent artists, musicians, and authors. Not so long ago, record labels were the only way to get your music heard and the labels decided what we would hear. Now, the cost of recording and distributing a “record album” has become essentially free. An artist can share their work with world with a few mouse clicks. A writer can display their talent (or lack there of) via a blog, or they can self publish through one of several means. Part of this cultural shift has included liberal ‘re-mixing’ of the mediums. Bands sample other bands, artists add paint to someone else’s photo, a blogger quotes sources in their work.
This remixing does not rely on a small percentage of content creators. This remixing is done by countless numbers from every country in the world. From funny Imgur photos posted on reddit (tens of thousands a day), to music mash-ups, to re-dubbing movie clips on Youtube.
While the internet shapes and evolves culture across the globe, those that started, grew and controlled industries whereby content was created have seen their bottom line impacted. This has made them angry (and their shareholders angry) as they have clung to old business models and watched their margins slowly chip away. They no longer have the total and complete say in who the biggest musical artist will be this year. They don’t get to tell us who the artist is that will break large. They don’t get to spoon feed us the news they want to. While it would seem prudent to find ways to adapt and use the capital they have to dominate in a world with new market rules, they instead decide to sit back and use that capital to fund lobby groups to protect “the good ol’ days”.
So People Should Just be Able to Steal Their Content?
No. We already have copyright laws, trademark laws, patents and a host of other laws that can be used to force someone to take down a page, photo, song, etc that infringes on their content. Unfortunately for the big content creators, these laws require that you actually deal with lawyers and courtrooms and judges (actually, often a C&D letter from a lawyer is enough). SOPA will undoubtedly require some kind of lawyering, but instead of being forced to remove the content, the entire site is blocked at the DNS level. At this point, I don’t see any means of defending oneself against a SOPA takedown either.
Some of the corporate supporters of SOPA have claimed that their support is based upon the need to prevent counterfeit goods purveyors from outside the reach of US law enforcement from chipping away at their sales. I get this. If you spend time designing, researching, sourcing, creating, marketing and distributing content or a product, you don’t want some factory in China selling lower quality versions of your creations at a fraction of your price. That being said, I don’t think someone buying a $20 knockoff of your $300 product is really the customer that would ever buy your $300 product.
I don’t know what the answer is to prevent this type of infringement, but I know SOPA is not it. Let’s look at a service like Youtube. I don’t think it’s a big secret that there is content infringement on Youtube. There are tens, probably hundreds of thousands of videos that have some form of infringement.
I have seen music remixes, movie redubs, people dancing to a track that probably wasn’t licensed and a million other examples of content infringement. The old school content creators get angry at this because someone is using their product without paying them. What do savvy content creators see? Free advertising. If somebody remixes my music into their video and their video goes viral, then more people hear about me and check out my music. If someone redubs my serious drama with funny lines and it gets passed around Reddit, then people learn about my serious drama and some of those people will seek my drama out after they’ve had their share of lols. The Dave Matthews Band became successful partially because of their taping policy when they were just starting out and playing shows to 30 people. The encouraged fans to tape the shows and share them. This was nearly unheard of at the time due to the draconian and short-sighted policies of the record labels (though bands like the Grateful Dead had tapers for years, mainstream acts rarely allowed live tapers). As early fans shared these tapes with friends in neighboring towns, DMB rolled in to play shows to larger and larger crowds on their first time in town. To this day, they still allow taping and encourage trading.
I had a video that was shot on a public street corner where a shop was blaring music through their outdoor speaker system. That video cannot be listed publically because I was infringing on the musical artist that someone else was broadcasting into a public street. We’ll call this type of situation “Unintentional Infringement”. How many videos are recorded with a stereo or television playing in the background? What about someone else’s artwork? If I have a painting on my wall and it is in the background of a photo or video I put on the internet, have I not reproduced the work without permission? I think this is a pretty slippery slope.
What Happens if SOPA Passes?
As I understand it, SOPA allows sites to be shut down without any avenue for defending against the order. For people accessing the internet in the USA, SOPA would see sites disappear from the web at an unknown pace. Given the way the record industry and Hollywood have pursued some offenders aggressively, I would expect them to flex their new found SOPA powers in a way to make the largest possible example as a warning to other infringers.
With a site like Youtube, my unintentional infringement could potentially lead to Youtube being shut off for all US web users. While it likely wouldn’t be my video that tipped that scale, the loss of the medium would be huge. There are plenty of great videos on the site that educate, entertain and enlighten and don’t infringe. Is it worth nuking the whole site instead of the surgical strike?
If the corporate “creators” decide to pick that fight, then say good-bye to Facebook, Reddit, Vimeo, WordPress, Tumbler, Flickr, myspace, countless blogs and independent websites. One also has to question if Google search would be shut down as it often shows results for sites that have infringing content. There goes Bing, Ebay, and a host of others.
This legislation is scary stuff. The internet has made it possible to have your voice heard, no matter how smart, stupid, right or wrong you are. SOPA opens the door to remove your voice. And if this legislation passes in the US, you will see similar legislation imposed on countries around the world.
What Can I Do?
If you’re in the USA:
And write your representative in Congress: https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml
Outside the US?
Talk with American friends and family members to ensure they understand what may happen if SOPA is passed and how it will affect them. Encourage them to become vocal about it.
Learn more about SOPA and your government. There’s a good chance they are starting to think this is a good idea too.