A chill online wind blows with SOPA
November 17, 2011

by tmartin on November 16, 2011

I LOVE MY FOOD, so when I hear the word sopa on a gray November day I think: mmmm, warm, soup, good. But this week’s political definition of SOPA is giving me the chills.

SOPA, for those of you who don’t live in a world of technology or politics, stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA, the US House bill, and its Senate cousin the PROTECT IP Act, want to tighten and enforce online copyright with a sledge hammer.

Not surprisingly, the film and recording industries are behind the effort. Also, not surprisingly, technology companies are against it.

And, least surprising of all, this week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing has created a frenzy of lobbying so intense you can almost hear the sound of dollar bills flying through the year.

To listen to the sound of the debate, you’d think Congress is either going to create a million jobs by killing off piracy or is about to destroy the very fabric of the Internet.  But it’s worse than either of those: SOPA is half-baked legislation that turns the web into a network of enforcers.

A quick read of the bill summary (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:HR03261:@@@D&summ2=m&) shows that it creates a somewhat undefined chain of responsibility and pushes the responsibity for enforcing copyright onto those running the mechanics of the web – and if you don’t play enforcer, you’ll be considered guilty too.

SOPA paints a broad sweep of illegal use of copyright material. That cute video of the kindergarten twins singing a pop pop pop hit song that mom posted on YouTube? Criminal activity that must be shut down and prosecuted.

CNET, reporting on this week’s debate (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20128239-38/sopa-hollywoods-latest-effort-to-turn-back-time/) put it very clearly, writing that SOPA:

… creates vague, sweeping new standards for secondary liability, drafted to ensure maximum litigation. It treats all U.S. consumers as guilty until proven innocent. If passed, the bill would give media companies unprecedented new powers to shape the structure and content of the Internet.

No one — proponents or opponents — argue that piracy should get a free pass. Piracy does indeed pull money and jobs from the economy and stealing is wrong. For that matter, it’s also illegal.

Uhm, yeah, it is already illegal! And there are methods for dealing with it on the books. Now. Today. Of course, that process doesn’t turn everyone up and down the Internet food chain into a free enforcer for one industry segment.

Not to mention the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 (http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf), which updated pre-digital era copyright regulations and attempted to balance content producer and web service provider rights. While not perfect, DMCA has been a platform for working through the nuts and bolts of managing content ownership in a world of easily transmitted files, user created content, and the whole reshaping of media as we once knew it.

Years ago, the recording and entertainment industries stuck their collective heads deep into the growing layers of silicon and then took a big business model body slam when the world simply moved past them and adopted different channels for digital music, movie, and TV distribution.These folks have been increasingly and vocally unhappy with DMCA and lobbied hard for SOPA.

It’s big bucks at stake here! To give you a sense of the scale, in 2007, media giant Viacom brought a $1Billion – yes, billion, with a B – copyright suit against YouTube.

Opponents of SOPA, including technology giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as media rights watchdogs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) say that SOPA is nothing less than a step toward government-backed-corporate censorship and blacklisting.

Various tech-centered sites “celebrated” the first day of the House hearings November 16 with a campaign called “American Censorship Day” posting a “this site has been censored” popup with a call to action to fight back. Campaign (http://americancensorship.org/), supporters include EFF, Public Knowledge, Mozilla, Creative Commons and a number of others.

Mozilla, home of the open source browser Firefox, went black in mourning at midnight, and subsequently ran a black “stop censorship” banner across the site, with links calling for action. (http://www.mozilla.org/sopa)

Corporate copyright vs. censorship sizzles with emotion. But that’s just part of the debate. SOPA makes me shiver because it feels like part of an on-going trend where people with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, fueled with massive mountains of lobbying cash, create solutions somewhat akin to carpet bombing a city to squash a mosquito buzzing around one’s head.

It also should remind us that this thing called the Internet has a life bigger than any one of us, that it was nourished with government funds, invested in by business, turned into an economic engine by entrepreneurial vision, and become the tool for individual expression and civic engagement around the globe.

Is that really something we want mucked about in a half-baked way driven by profit motive on the part of one industry? We – all of us – deserve better than that!

As Congress continues to debate, and the November rain continues to fall, I think that I, for one, will return to the other kind of sopa, the one with chicken broth and chilies and all sorts of good things that you can find (http://www.food.com/recipe-finder/all/sopa) with the click of mouse … because the Internet remains a place where no single interest or bloc of money can dictate what we do and how we use it.

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