Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thinking Through Definitions: SOPA

If anyone here (all both of you) pays attention to my F'book page, you'll see that I haven't shut up about SOPA since I first learned about it. Everyday I read through all the SOPA headlines looking for new information, or even new takes on old information. This morning, The Washington Post had two articles that caught my eye, primarily because they had comments from proponents of the bill. These comments bring up interesting definitional issues that I doubt will ever be discussed by our legislators, and might even be a little bit too difficult of a topic than most of them are willing to engage in. Especially because this legislation has the stink of corporate wealth on it.

SOPA Opposition Goes Viral

The first, as you can see, talks about how companies like Tumblr, Reddit, and Mozilla were able to successfully bring their userbase around to this issue while the major media companies failed, despite having used "The Twitter." Anyone who has spent any time floating around the internet could have told these companies it would fail. Hard. The internet has a keen nose for rooting out insincerity, and this measure is Insincere of The First Order. Remember when Sony made that fake PSP blog? No one bought it. Or more recently, how about this? PROTIP: I linked to the Google search page because I can't bring myself to support this site. Even with only my clicks. The reason these folks (Reddit, Mozzila et al) were able to rally the support is that the user base feels like these sites really get what they want. And they do. The media companies only, always have and always will, try to convince us what they want. They're just mad now because for the first time in 80 or so years, a large portion of the consumers have become immunized.

Opposition to the bill is growing from the technology world. On Tuesday, the Business Software Alliance, which represents Microsoft, Intel, Adobe and Apple, pulled its support of the legislation, saying that it “needs work” and that some “valid and important questions” have been raised.
It's about time these companies stepped up in support. Microsoft, Intel, and Apple might all ride the big media line, but ultimately they recognize who uses their junk.

Legislative pushes for the bill in both chambers highlight a consensus among lawmakers and some businesses that online piracy and counterfeiting has become a rampant problem that has drained the pockets of media firms, authors, software and filmmakers who are seeing their goods exchanged for free on the Internet.
This is just false. On two accounts: 1. Any study worth its salt shows that piracy doesn't hurt media companies. Like this one, or this one showing that, quite possibly, so-called pirates are your best customers. There are also questionable studies that are probably fake. Or very flawed. Or the product of fevered imagination. The point is that companies that say they hurt haven't been paying attention. My favorite is the one that analyzes what media companies believe the purchasing power of the public to be.

Yet while they agree with the spirit of the bill, many technology firms are opposed to the measure as it stands.
I wonder how true this is. Perhaps some companies, Microsoft and Apple for instance, would definitely be opposed to piracy, but others, like Google, Facebook, Tumblr, and even Yahoo (though they might deny it), definitely benefit. I feel certain that these companies only dance along so as not to later become suspects in whatever iteration of SOPA or PIPA emerge.

But the bill’s proponents — which include the Motion Picture Association of America — say that concerns that the bill would damage Internet culture, promote government censorship or encroach on the First Amendment are overblown. Michael O’Leary, the MPAA’s senior executive vice president for global policy and external affairs, said rhetoric comparing provisions in SOPA to Web censorship are “laughable.”

“This bill has due process,” he said. “It covers activities that are, under federal law, illegal, and requires that any order issued is public and transparent.”

This makes me wonder what he would consider censorship. Moreover, this would definitely damage internet culture. The internet's culture depends irrevocably on the ability to freely share any kind of information. Furthermore, I'm certain there's a fallacy of argumentation that says something about how if a party has a vested interest in the debate's outcome, then that person's input is suspect. Of course he's going to say it won't hurt the internet because he benefits the most if it passes.

SOPA Goes for House Debate:
“The bill provides effective due process to the parties involved. A federal judge must first agree that the website in question is dedicated to illegal and infringing activity,” Smith said recently in a statement. “Only then will a court order be issued directing companies to sever ties with the illegal website. Legitimate websites have nothing to worry about under this bill.”
This one is out of chronological order, and from the first article, but it's my favorite and forms the center of what's really going on here. Best for last and so forth.

It comes from the silliest Republican on the planet (who isn't currently a woman running for president), Rep. Lamar Smith:

“Claims that this bill will ‘break’ the Internet are unfounded. When one-quarter of Internet traffic is infringing, something is already in need of repair,” he said, adding that “over-the-top rhetoric intended to excite opposition” is clouding the underlying problem of online piracy.
This is the most fascinating because, if true, it indicates a distinct shift in cultural thought that is being entirely ignored. If one full quarter of the entire world wide web is being used for "infringing," then that indicates to me a growing trend in the world outlook concerning copyright is greatly changing. And this is, I think, the unaddressed crux of the argument.

The capstone of any republic or democracy today is the idea that it's the rule of the people. By the people, for the people. If 1/4 of all internet traffic is used just for infringement, as Smith claims, then there is at least 1/4 of the world internet using population that thinks copyright as it stands is insufficient in some way. And I bet that number is low. If a friend burns a CD for you, gives you a tape of last night's Community (because no one wants to use Hulu, with its inane commercials squaking at you every seven minutes), throws an audiobook on your iPod, makes a mixtape for your wedding, or shows a movie at a neighborhood block party, then you're an infringer too. The law has become so tight, that it's too easy to become a criminal without even realizing it. And now the media companies want to make it tighter.

My point is that an increasing number of people worldwide are violating copyright in such a way that it should be obvious that copyright is what needs changing. By the people, for the people. And as the Public Domain Manifesto states: "Having a healthy and thriving Public Domain is essential to the social and economic well-being of our societies." So much of what the internet does is convert the copyright into a public domain, repurposing extant works to new ends.

However, you should never take credit for something you didn't create (something the internet by and large excels at), and you should never make money off of something you didn't make (something flea markets do not excel at).

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