An essay written for Computers and Society, a required course for Computer Science majors at Northeastern University. The essay required us to write about potential effects on communication of then-proposed anti-piracy legislation.
As Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked which form of government was decided upon. Franklin famously responded: “a republic if, you can keep it”. The Republic restricted government power to protecting the individual’s rights to liberty and property. Franklin’s warnings have proved to be astute as the Federal Government has expanded at an alarming rate over the past century, ignoring individual liberties and property rights. Instead, special privileges are granted to groups that can entice politicians with money or a path to re-election.
Most recently, the entertainment industry has pushed for two bills to be introduced into the House and the Senate. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) expand the abilities of the federal government to include fighting internet piracy. Although it may sound like a noble cause, the case can easily be made that these bills enable the federal government to censor the internet at the whim of copyright holders.
The Justice Department will be given the power to force internet service providers to blacklist entire websites if copyright infringement is reported. This poses a particular threat to websites that focus on user-contributed content.
If SOPA and PIPA are passed, websites that rely on user-contributed content will be unable to monitor content for copyright infringement in a cost-effective way and will be forced out of business. This is a great economic loss to our country and will only worsen our already dismal economic condition.
Services that rely on user-contributed content provide an easy way for casual internet users share information on the internet for free. This creates social power for any participating users because people can interact and motivate others with the information they share.
If I were to have a problem with the government or a corporation, I could easily share my gripes with the public, at little to no cost, using a service like Tumblr or WordPress.
If SOPA/PIPA were to force these businesses out of the marketplace, publicly airing grievances via the internet would require a costly hosting provider, the technical knowledge to develop a website, and significantly more time. Meaningful computer-mediated social interaction will be greatly diminished. Making it virtually impossible for these services to exist shifts power to those in the entertainment industry–those who lobbied for SOPA and PIPA.
Copyright holders are given the power to dictate which websites should be shutdown without trial. Their claims are considered probable cause. The Fourth Amendment does not apply to webmasters, they must prove their innocence. This is not only anathema to our Constitution, but also significantly impacts the balance of power in computer-mediated social interactions. People will be more wary when posting content, and will likely refrain from sharing their opinions, fearful that they will face harsh punishments.
These new laws would make simply linking to a website that has infringing content illegal. If I were to include a link on my personal website to another hosting pirated movies, I, too, would be found guilty and would have my website taken down and face punishment. Sounds somewhat reasonable. But what about search engines like Google? They’d be expected to filter their results, which, given the number of pages Google indexes, is simply not possible. Because non-compliance results in blacklisting, “Googling” something could possibly become something of the past! Without modern search engine technology, finding information on the web would be extremely difficult. Power, again, would be shifted to the corporations that have lobbied for this controls because their information would be much easier to find.
Additionally, the distribution of tools and services that can circumvent blacklists becomes illegal. Many of these tools and services, such as virtual private networking (VPN) and onion routing, have very legitimate uses. Many companies use VPN to protect trade secrets and customer information when transferring data over the Internet. Onion routers, like Tor, provide for completely anonymous social interaction over the internet, which is often used by journalists, whistleblowers, and human rights activists. These services are critical to transferring sensitive information securely and maintaining anonymity. Without these tools, the internet becomes far less versatile and reduces its capabilities for social interaction.
Realizing the catastrophic results of passing these bills, many citizens have harnessed the power of the internet to warn their peers. Many prominent opponents of SOPA/PIPA, such as Wikipedia, Tumblr, and Reddit, organized “blackout” protests to raise awareness. These services obscured or disabled their content for a limited time to show users the impact they have on daily computing, while, of course, explaining SOPA. Wikipedia, in particular, replaced the content of each page with a warning about SOPA on January 18, 2012 to educate its 162 million visitors.
The massive awareness that Wikipedia et al. raised validates the social power these services provide to all Internet users. The outrage caused many Congressional sponsors of SOPA to reconsider their position. As a result, the House Judiciary Committee cancelled the SOPA hearing and have announced there is no intention of considering the bill.
Employing the social power provided by the free and open internet, constituents have made their opinions on internet censorship clear to their representatives.
For now, SOPA and PIPA have been defeated. There is the threat of future bills similar in nature, because–according to the entertainment industry–piracy is still a problem.
I don’t think the solution can come from a new law. Laws restricting the internet will likely be diluted incarnations of SOPA. The entertainment industry must realize the market for multimedia has changed. Technology improves distribution, quality, and customer choice. The entertainment industry has simply been too slow to respond; pirates, however, have addressed market needs and have capitalized, albeit unethically.
Cassette tape recording technology didn’t kill the record industry in the 1980s; it encouraged innovation. Piracy won’t kill the modern entertainment industry if energy is focused on innovation instead of lobbying. This misdirected effort decelerates the rate of innovation, disrupts computer-mediated interaction, and corrodes our Republic, just as Franklin had warned.