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SOPA: A Bad Idea Falls Off – For Now

After an Internet blackout, lawmakers see the light

By Jon Lebkowsky, Fri., Jan. 27, 2012

SOPA: A Bad Idea Falls Off – For Now
Illustration by Jason Stout

After a widespread online protest on Jan. 18, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA, appear to be dead. Their sponsors have withdrawn both bills, presumably because they were beginning to understand why the bills were bad for the Internet, as opponents – including major Internet companies like Google and Facebook and websites like Wikipedia and Boing Boing – have tried to make clear. Lawmakers will almost certainly propose new bills to curb "online piracy" or "illegal file sharing." The question is whether these bills will be any more insightful.

Internet-savvy Austin didn't participate as visibly in the protest as you might expect. Austin pages for Craigslist and Reddit were blacked out on Jan. 18, but those sites aren't actually based here. A few locals – HelpAttack!, EFF-Austin, and Do512 – were dark, and The Austin Chronicle, while not blacked out, posted an action link and an editorial voicing support of the protest.

Probably the most effective local action originated from Fight for the Future's Stop American Censorship website, grassroots organizing to coordinate meetings with legislators nationwide. Texas members of the site, coordinated by Alex Chiba, met with Sandy Edwards from U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's office. The messages conveyed during that meeting seemed to have sunk in. Following the meeting, Cornyn made this comment (using the moment to flog a Republican pet peeve, health care reform):

"Texans have soundly rejected the 'pass now, learn later' approach that we saw with Obamacare, and the potential impact of this legislation is too far-reaching to ram it through Congress in such an abrupt way.

"Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about the Internet and free speech necessitate a more thoughtful, deliberative process."

So what was the fuss about? What is the "far-reaching impact" of legislation supposedly intended to protect the intellectual property rights of content providers?

There are two worlds of content distribution. One is rooted in 20th century mass-media assumptions from a time when media channels and means of production were scarce and media distribution went one way: from a few producers to many consumers. Content creation and production was mostly professional; access to mass attention was highly regulated with many barriers and gateways, as well as much vetting of content.

The other is the 21st century world of highly interactive, democratized "many to many" rhizomatic content production and sharing. With low, almost nonexistent barriers to the means of digital production and Internet distribution, anyone can play. The quality of user-generated content in this world varies, but that doesn't seem to matter. Increasingly, professional content is mixed with content produced by amateurs, consumers are becoming producers, and anyone can have an audience. Everybody's sharing media – their own and everybody else's.

What content companies call "piracy" is rarely theft in the sense we normally think of it, but a form of sharing. It can result from the same impulse as loaning a book or record, except in a digital world, you can make a permanent loan of a faithful digital replication, not just to friends but to faceless others. In a mass-media context, where revenues depend on the sale of commercial content, sharing it in this way is no better than theft. The old media impulse is not to shift gears and consider new business models adapted to the Internet, but to shut the thieves down and sustain old ways of doing business.

It's really a bit of a mess, this migration from old to new thinking about media; the coexistence of entertainment and Internet industries is rocky at best. Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures characterized SOPA and PIPA as an attempt by the old media entertainment industry to regulate the digital media Internet industry. He suggests that legislators and both industries need to have a long conversation about what's best for all – hopefully not forgetting the "prosumer."

In a viral video of a TED Talk addressing "why SOPA/PIPA is a bad idea," Internet culture commentator Clay Shirky said that the bills would have a massive chilling effect by placing a burden of proof on all of us before we produce and share content and requiring those who provide Internet sharing capabilities (Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al.) to police all content, even what's posted in comments. Says Shirky, "Time Warner has called, and they want us all back on the couch, just consuming – not producing, not sharing. But we should say 'no.'"


Jon Lebkowsky is cofounder and current President of EFF-Austin, an independent nonprofit civil liberties organization concerned with emerging frontiers where technology meets society.

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