18 January 2012

Five Reasons Why You Don’t Want SOPA to Pass

SOPA and PIPA are the latest acronyms to flood the interwebs, many of the articles promising death and destruction should either of these bills pass in the Congress. I whole-heartedly agree they are not good for America, Americans or the world at large, however, I think the real issues surrounding them, while alarming, have kept us from focusing on some of the other byproducts such laws would create.

I do not intend to cause a frenzy, however, I do want to draw your attention to the less discussed fall-out of the passage of bills like these.

1. Censorship is a slippery slope and we won’t gain traction back quickly.
No matter how anyone spins it, SOPA is a form of censorship. The language written into the bill does not directly state it, but then again, it never would have gotten as far as it has with a blatant mention of the “c” word. In fact, there is language at the front of the bill that expressly states it’s not meant to infringe on the 1st Amendment.

(1) FIRST AMENDMENT- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to impose a prior restraint on free speech or the press protected under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. (Source)
As we have discovered in the past however, the road to hell is paved with such good intentions. SOPA is meant to censure any website that so much as thinks about copyright infringement or offers a mechanism that could allow for copyright infringement. That means comment sections, photo uploads, back-linking etc. You know, all the things we do online. But perhaps the scariest thought is that once you say ‘yes’ to censorship, it gets harder and harder to say ‘no.’ Set the precedent and the really difficult legwork has already been done for any Internet denizen with a bone to pick.

2. A free flow of ideas breeds innovation.

Let me quote Sir Isaac Newton, you know, the guy who put a name to gravity: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’m not saying that people don’t come up with new ideas or inventions; they do. But, most of the things that are being created now are building upon someone else’s creation or discovery. We wouldn’t have thought to break the sound barrier if we hadn’t known one existed. We wouldn’t be trying to cure cancer, if someone hadn’t discovered it in the first place. See where I’m going with this? Innovative thinking is an organic result of the thinking that came before. It is spawned from the “what if?” question that often follows the discovery of something and then leads to the next. By limiting what is available and how someone accesses that information, we are limiting those who would share their work and discoveries with the internet at large. Crowd-sourcing would become the first casualty. What is effectively online brainstorming, bringing together people with different knowledge, backgrounds and experiences, could be considered the epitome of copyright infringement.

3. The Internet has done more good than harm.
While it is not truly universal or available to everyone (there are still limits to access based on income, connectivity, etc.), it is still quickly becoming the most accessible media. Unlike newspaper, TV, radio or telephone, the internet needs very little to get carried from one city, one state, one country to the next. If we disregard connection issues for the moment, how else can we explain the ubiquity of the internet and its role in global movements, such as the uprising this past summer in Egypt or even opposition to SOPA? The beauty of the internet is that it shrinks our world, allowing us to garner information from others who have different views and experiences than us. It has also made things like medical information, education and news available to people who did not have access before.

4. Passage of SOPA won’t stop online piracy.
Newsflash: the people whom this bill is designed to stop, i.e. online pirates who take great pride in stealing Hollywood’s latest blockbuster or the music industry’s latest album, already KNOW THEY’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG. They don’t need legislation to tell them that. Passage of this bill will not cause them to sit up and say, “Oh no, that’s illegal? I better stop then.” It will simply encourage them to find new and more creative ways to make pirated content available.

Put succinctly, SOPA will not stop the pirates, but it will punish the rest of us who are trying to share our ideas, our favorite stories, our family photos, etc. with other friends, family or the internet at large. It will prevent us from engaging in a good, healthy debate in the comments section of a blog or other news source, because somewhere on that site, someone will have infringed a copyright and the site will be forced to go dark. It will also punish businesses and website owners who may not have the time or resources to police every comment, photo, video, audio clip, link that is shared on their site. It will allow the big boys to get bigger while the little guys shrivel up and disappear. One of the provisions of SOPA is that search engines (i.e. Google, Bing) must remove all pages of the offending site from their index. Do you know how long it takes a site to build up search engine credibility to get listed in the first place? It’s not an overnight process. So, the damage of penalizing a small site that might finally have hit its stride can be ongoing, as they will need to start all over again once the site is deemed “okay” by the powers that be.

5. SOPA is a machete.
This is not the job for hacking with a giant, unsharpened knife. If anything, it’s the job for a scalpel, and one that is wielded by an expert (or team of experts). Website owners and content creators/managers will need to be involved in writing and enacting legislation that will not only work, but is easier to follow and enforce.

Whether SOPA or PIPA actually pass or are even brought to a vote before Congress is not yet apparent. As today’s web black-out comes to an end, we will need to wait and see what type, if any, effect it had on those in Washington who first proposed SOPA. The White House has already come out against the bill, stating: “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” (Source). So, this is good news, but the fact that the White House wants some type of legislation still makes it a scary proposition as we’ll need to wait and see what the next bill and its language encompasses.

The best thing we can hope for is that this first proposed bill has shed enough light on the situation that people now understand how important and potentially damaging such a law could be. This should aid the cause in the future when the new language is proposed and help 1) to determine if the new proposed language is better than the current incarnation and 2) to mobilize the general population faster to ensure that we continue to let the government know we will not allow such a bill to pass without understanding its intricacies and how it will affect everyone.
Read the full language of the Stop Online Piracy Act Here - Library of Congress Website

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