Sunday, January 22, 2012

SOPA, far more than an Internet Shutdown

Perhaps for many, the Wednesday Google, Wikipedia, and other organizations, self-imposed blackout of websites was the first time you heard  about SOPA and PIPA.  That demonstration only addressed the technical problems argument of the debate to address online piracy.  SOPA implements their strategy by altering DNS, the way we find sites by human readable names, to take down a site.  The demonstration was enough to make staunch allies of MPAA and the Hollywood moguls, like Rep Betty McCollum and Barack Obama (well his aides), wither and declare they would no longer support it. “But the heightened awareness – or lack thereof – failed to reach Minnesota’s own Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar who are co-sponsoring SOPA’s sister bill, PIPA”. Klobuchar, who appear taken aback by opposition, has received $200,000 financial support from the entertainment business interests that backed PIPA, and Franken has raised more than $900,000.  However the technical side of the argument, which was given short shrift, like the tip of an ice berg ignores even larger issues - freedom of speech for all of us.

The ability to take down and deny free expression to any web site/blog, essentially criminalizing them, by simply finger-pointing will have an instant and complete chilling effect.  It would silence much of the content in online newspapers,  journals, blogs, or any site that uses video clips and citations from other sites.  Here are several quotes (something I probably could not do as “fair use” under SOPA/PIPA) that explain this issue.

From The Internet piracy bill: A free speech 'kill switch'
Consider this: Under the proposed legislation all that’s required for government to shutdown a specific website is the mere accusation that the site unlawfully featured copyrighted content.  Such an accusation need not be proven – or even accompanied by probable cause. All that an accuser (or competitor) needs to do in order to obtain injunctive relief is point the finger at a website.

TedCarnahan com
Imagine a tool like this used as a pretense to silence political opponents.  A site torn down by SOPA might be offline for months while the procedure for reinstatement is followed.

SOPA - Why You Should Be Very Afraid
If SOPA passes and is signed into law, this Blog, and tens of thousands of others used to express free speech will go away, or be severely curtailed. This Blog would become text only, with no links, photos, or embedded content whatsoever. I couldn't post a photo, unless I knew exactly who produced it and had their explicit permission to reproduce it. I couldn't link to a YouTube video, because I would have no way of guaranteeing that no one along the chain had any claim to a copyright. What would be the point then?

The Washington Current
The chief bipartisan opponents of the bill, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), say they are committed to fighting online piracy. However, they and others contend the current legislation is overly broad and could allow the federal government to shut down entire websites without recourse.

Google and First Amendment scholars like Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe argue that SOPA would squelch free speech by giving private parties power to effectively cripple sites that allegedly — but not conclusively — steal copyrighted content. The simple filing of a complaint, they say, would exert huge pressure on the Internet ecosystem to blacklist an accused site. They also say it would give the feds dangerous new powers to go after sites for political reasons.

Prescott eNews
Here's how these bills would work. Suppose someone, we'll call her Mary, claims her copyrighted material is on (fictitious) website without prior permission. The government could then shut down JoesInformation immediately, without any warning or opportunity for Joe to defend himself. Additionally, not only can Mary sue Joe in court, but the DOJ can also sue Joe in court.
However, these bills wouldn't protect against all copyright infringements. For example, when Ann Kirkpatrick's campaign took a video without permission from Prescott eNews to use in a commercial against her opponent Paul Gosar two years ago, the only final recourse was to spend thousands of dollars on a lawsuit in federal court.

Unquestionably, the Hollywood moguls have a right to protect their copyrighted materials from illegal distribution.  Piracy of their products is illegal and broadly prosecuted already, as evidenced by this weeks international take down of MegaUpload. But the enormously broad over reach of this approach, that would deny even fair use issues and discussion, will violate the free speech of virtually everyone, whether related to this issue or not.  It was pointed out to me that supporters arguments for this form of legislation look remarkably like the arguments for rent seeking on all discussion.
In economics, rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent  by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth. For example, spending money on political lobbying in order to be given a share of wealth that has already been created. A famous example of rent-seeking is the limiting of access to lucrative occupations, as by medieval guilds or modern state certifications and licensures. People accused of rent seeking typically argue that they are indeed creating new wealth (or preventing the reduction of old wealth) by improving quality controls, guaranteeing that charlatans do not prey on a gullible public, and preventing bubbles.
The obvious criminal activity of the Chinese duplication industry, as one example, needs to be stamped out without question.   However the MPAA has long been an opponent of new technology, much like the great Chinese firewall, in misguided attempts to put curbs and barriers to viewing their product to prevent piracy. 
Wikipedia, MPAA'SJack Valenti
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Valenti became notorious for his flamboyant attacks on the Sony Betamax Video Cassette Recorder (VCR), which the MPAA feared would devastate the movie industry. He famously told a congressional  panel in 1982, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler  is to the woman home alone."[6]  Despite Valenti's prediction, the home video market ultimately came to be the mainstay of movie studio revenues throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The short-sightedness of MPAA’s Valenti hyperbolic argument and its ultimate falsity should have educated the MPAA and others to search for the gain to be made with new distribution technology of the Internet.   Netflix certainly has.  Economically attractive (there are very small costs compared to DVD production and distribution price of $20+), on demand viewing, of a vast library of films will certainly be their future.  Effectively crushing any significant rationale for piracy.

picture thanks to

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