The US government’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, and its sister bill, the Protect IP Act, are due to be debated again in Congress this January having been initially, and controversially, submitted at the end of last year. For those who are unaware of what these bills are about, the basic gist is that they are aimed at granting authorities draconian web censorship powers for purposes of tackling online piracy. The bills are supported by pretty much nobody who knows anything at all about the internet, though they do have the might of US ‘content’ industries behind them (unsurprisingly) – whose powerful lobbying is instrumental in the bills having even reached this stage. (Here’s a good video explainer).
The problem with the bills, as most opponents see it, generally hinges on two points:
- that draconian web censorship powers are dangerous and should not be granted lightly, since they could be abused to harm democratic opposition and activity
- that the bill will inhibit creativity and freedom online (an obvious economic disaster for a country where tech is a major industry)
On the first point of censorship, the issue is that the bill would allow US authorities to shut down a website instantly and indiscriminately, without adequate judicial process. Websites can be shut down even now, but the ‘problem’ is that this takes too long due to the awkward matter of respecting legal procedures. The proposed measure would essentially give the US government the same powers enjoyed by those authoritarian regimes in China, Iran, and Burma – who all make use of the powers precisely in order to control information flow so as to prevent democratic opposition and free speech.
What is interesting here is that, even though this is potentially against the US constitution (first amendment on free speech), this aspect hasn’t really filtered through to the American public to the extent that they oppose the bill enough to kill it – which is usually what happens when a bill is seen to interfere with the constitution – whether it actually does or not. (Try tightening gun ownership laws for example…) Nobody is denying that piracy contravenes or undermines many essential laws – but the issue here is whether or not SOPA, in attempting to tackle the problem, might create another – arguably more worrying – one.
On the more tech side of things, since the bill proposes allowing interference with the web’s DNS (Domain Name System) – which converts url addresses into machine-readable code – engineers fear that this risk of blanket censorship could stifle innovation massively. This would happen because the DNS would be used to remove an entire domain from search engines results (like wordpress.com for example) even if there was only a few actual posts or blogs which contravened piracy law. The implications for social media would be massive…
The bottom line is that by raising the stakes to such an absolute level, web companies and start-ups would have to expend huge energy in making sure SOPA rules were not breached, since the economic consequences would be huge for them in such a case. Imagine for example I start a group on Facebook for sharing copyrighted material of some sort (illegal NFL highlights or whatever). Facebook would eventually close my group – but maybe not before I’d shared the video clips with a few other users. Now, if ‘content producers’ are unhappy with Facebook’s efficacy in dealing with this would they appeal to SOPA to get facebook.com removed from the DNS? What would the US economy’s net gain/loss be from such an episode?
All that is even before we get to the question of whether or not SOPA would actually tackle piracy effectively? Couldn’t offending websites just re-register and move to a different domain within hours of being taken down? Also, wouldn’t this merely tackle a superficial aspect of piracy rather than going to the core of the problem? If technologies and the web change over the next couple of years, isn’t it highly likely that piracy will look different and so need a whole new raft of laws again? Banning Napster didn’t solve the problem, neither did getting rid of The Pirate Bay – so perhaps it’s a bit naive to think that yet another ban will do the trick?
So, things are clearly far from straightforward. As an excellent Guardian piece on this issue has pointed out, new technology should really be creatively embraced by content industries since in the past they have always found ways to profit from such developments (cassette, VHS, DVD, etc) albeit the change was one they were partially forced into. After all, a limited ban will hardly change the fact that the economics of certain industries have changed irrevocably over recent decades.
Film industries were all too happy for innovation to be encouraged when it brought them better technology to make money (improved recording equipment, computers with special effects etc) but have decided that ‘bad’ technology that compromises their older business models should be in some way banned rather than responded to with new and innovative revenue models. iTunes and Spotify are just two examples of viable and extremely lucrative ventures for getting users to pay for music in a digital age, and I doubt that they will be the last ones we ever see.
Luckily, opposition to SOPA is building and there are various ways you can register your opposition. For non-US residents, the question is whether or not this matters elsewhere. In my opinion, it’s not hard to see that such an act would be a disaster for other countries as well, both in the scenario where they would then also be forced to adopt a similar law and where they aren’t. In the former case, we end up with the law because domestic content industries demand it in order to protect themselves against the now even more powerful US studios/labels, while in the latter situation, our industry is undermined financially because US studios represent a sounder investment (with film production for example), thus weakening non US studios access to funds for example.
I won’t pretend to have a solution to a problem which has persisted for almost as long as the internet has. I will however venture that since the entire problem only exists because technology has changed the economic behaviour of a certain good (‘content’) the solution will need to be a little more creative and innovative than simply stomping around trying to ban anything that looks like an internet pirate might have touched it. Especially, when such bans might also have serious implications for the valuable tech sector as a whole and perhaps even democratic rights to free speech.