Wednesday, January 18, 2012

[Wōdnes-dæg] SOPA

Okay. So, SOPA (and the similar PIPA). For those of you who don't know SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act (PIPA stands for Protect IP Act), is a piece of U.S. legislation aimed at curtailing the freewheeling use of copyrighted material (video, pictures, lyrics). It is currently in congress and is to be voted on in less than a week's time (January 24, 2012).

Today was a day of protest in which many major sites blacked themselves out - either entirely (like Wikipedia or That Guy With The Glasses) or partially (like Google's homepage). But why protest this bill?

If you've been reading around the internet you've probably found plenty of information on it. Go ahead, Google "SOPA" right now. I'll wait.

Okay. So from what's online you'll learn that SOPA is something that will make activities like recording yourself singing along to a favourite song and then posting the video on YouTube an offence punishable by jail time.

Justin Beiber, whether he deserves such treatment or not for other reasons, would never have had his meteoric rise to stardom - instead he'd be punching plates somewhere or embroiled in an international legal battle. However, this law would also effect fan sites that use copyrighted materials and review sites like the Spoony Experiment, That Guy With The Glasses, The Angy Video Game Nerd, etc would not be able to function at all. Re-mixers and mash-up artists would be shuffled into court.

Directly related to the inconvenience of losing these sites, SOPA would also make free speech difficult since any use of copyrighted material would need to be permitted by the copyright holder. And if you want to get your hands on such a thing as copyright you need to lighten your wallet. To wax alarmist for a moment, SOPA could potentially make free speech not just equivalent with money (the basis of the Citizens United ruling, which makes corporations people in the US), but also require money.

Most netizens don't pull down the kind of income that could support their rapid use of copyrighted material. And so things would become quiet on the internet.

However, for all the doom and gloom that you're likely to find in the nightmare scenarios many online sources paint for SOPA's passing, the bill isn't without it's merits.

As a friend of mine (check out his facebook page here) pointed out, SOPA would be terrible in the short term. For the first five months things online would be slow. People might even start regularly reading books and print media again! But, by his reckoning five years down the road we would be under duress from a Great American Firewall, and so ISPs and hosting servers would spring up internationally. This would mean more internet innovation, and maybe some exciting new directions for the net.

It would also force people to be more knowledgeable about how the internet works. Because there are workarounds for the limitations that SOPA would impose. Darknets, and using remote ISPs for example. The "Internet" is just one set of channels that are accessible via modem, cable, fibre, or wi-fi.

But those first five months would be hell for everyone's habits.

Of course, given the success of this protest (read about key senators changing their minds (and four informative articles about SOPA itself) here), its passing seems about as likely as Obama closing Gitmo like he promised.

But all cynicism aside, it does appear that the people of the internet have been heard, and that the people in congress are acting according to their wishes. SOPA might just get knocked down!

Yet - as this article makes clear, a victory now is not a victory indefinitely.

Hollywood and the media industry is the biggest stakeholder in something like SOPA. What's pirated the most? What has the most copies floating around YouTube or the most repeats on things like Facebook? Pop culture, of course. And that stuff is covered in copyright. The copyright of studios, of artists, of writers, of performers, of producers, of directors, of mothers and fathers, of sons and daughters.

There's probably something being ripped off right now that's copyrighted to a dog even.

And Hollywood is not a weak industry. Music, movies, TV - entertainment - are all integral to peoples' lives now. The darker among us might pull out a reference to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and say that the drug that he describes in his book is here, but not as a pill. Instead it is hear as a sound, a picture, a thing that evokes feeling and lulls people away from their worries and cares.

People like being entertained. Hollywood provides that and charges for it, too. Thus, Hollywood has a lot of money.

With that money, Hollywood is likely just to write up another piece of legislation and try to get it passed later on. A victory now is but one in a single skirmish. But the larger coup has not yet been had - it may never be had.

So, finally getting to the theme of Wednesday entries, what I've been learning lately is that the political process (in the States) is broken. But it can be made to work, and the internet is a great way to facilitate the peoples' voice. However, I have also learned that this voice can't just release a single shout and then fall to silence. It needs to hold its note for a long time, even over periods during which it seems that no one is listening, before that note's meaning is fully conveyed.

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