As you may or may have noticed, I have been making a lot of SOPA related jokes on Twitter lately. Why? Because I am genuinely concerned about the future of the internet.
For roughly twenty years now, the “information superhighway” was a free, unfiltered, unobstructed and uncensored platform for exchange of information. Internet was a place for discussion, dissenting political speech, activism, advocacy, cultural exchange, pornography, shocking pictures of mutilated penises, memes and illicit downloads. All existing side by side – the good with the bad, the noble with the disgusting, debasing filth. And it was glorious. The internet was a place not as much devoid of rules, but lacking restrictions, boundaries and walls that would impede communication.
Whatever hobby, fetish, perversion or fascination you might have had, the Internet was a place to go and find like minded people to share, discuss and celebrate it with. It allowed us to connect and bond above cultural and national divides, beyond petty and insignificant cultural differences, and regardless of your race, creed, or religion.
Yes, there was bad stuff on the internet – illegal stuff, stuff you can go to jail for, stuff you can be sued for, stuff people objected to on moral or religious grounds. But that happens when you have an open platform of communication. People will use it to transport and share everything that falls within the scope of the human condition – the good and the bad, the inspirational and the illegal. People send illegal stuff via snail mail all the time too. But do we open all the mail to check whether it is legit? Do we blacklist and ban certain neighborhoods because one of their residents decided to poop in an envelope and send it to his ex-wife? No, we have a process for dealing with the bad apples, while allowing rest of the people to communicate without interruptions.
We had a similar process for the internet. It was called DMCA and it was horribly broken but there were ways to work within it constraints. If you were found to be posting infringing content on the internet, anyone in the world could send your hosting company or service a take-down notice without providing any proof or documentation. One letter and your content would be taken down. You could then file a dispute claim, prove that you own said content, and that the take-down was bullshit and eventually you could get your content back online. It would take several weeks, and since there was no penalty for issuing fraudulent take-down requests a dedicated troll could knock it off-line again within days or hours from the time it got re-instated. Don’t believe me? Read about the recent Megaupload case in which UMG kept knocking down completely legit viral advertising campaign videos of the popular uploading service? Why? Because UMG considered Megaupload to be an evil “rogue website” and they did not want the artists on their roster associated with it – regardless of the fact that said artists agreed to star in said commercial, and were paid to do so.
Unethical? Yes. Abhorrent? Yes. Illegal? No. That’s DMCA for you – it was stacked against you, and assumed you are guilty until proven innocent.
But at least it dif offer you a way to defend yourself from frivolous copyright infringement claims and it was more or less a fine grained instrument. The copyright holder had to point to a specific instance of infringement, and then that instance would be removed. It was a sniper rifle – a weapon that could be used to pick off infringes and innocents alike with high precision, but not en-masse. Also, it had long, but limited range. If your hosting provider and/or service happened to be located outside of US, the DMCA take-down letters would mean diddly-squat. So the entertainment industry has been itching for something stronger – a bigger, better ban hammer they could use to knock stuff off from the internet. And they got it.
SOPA – a new bill written entirely by RIAA, MPAA spin doctors is not a sniper rifle. It is a intercontinental thermonuclear missile full of Anthrax and Ebola. It is a weapon of mass destruction designed not to target infringing content, but to erase entire web services from the web.
The legislation reads like something from Orwell’s 1984 – it aims to convert infringing websites into unwebsites. To disappear them from the American internet forever, and without a recourse. One infringement, one slip-up and your web presence in the United States is undone. While DMCA provided a safe harbor provisions to sites with user-submitted content (as long as they took it down when notified, they were in the clear legally), SOPA makes no such exceptions. If you have a six million users, and one of them sneaks an illegal mp3 file under your radar you are toast.
Actually scratch that – if anyone in the world says one of your users sneaked an illegal mp3 file under your radar you can be labeled a rogue website, and become inaccessible in US. Do they have to provide any proof that this infringement has actually happened? Of course not, don’t be silly. This is America – you are guilty until you prove and document your innocence.
How would this be accomplished? We would be using the same technology that China and Iran are using to thwart the free speech of their citizens. Essentially we will put a great firewall between the US and the rest of the internet, and allow only the stuff that was blessed by our corporate overlords. Yes, the same people who tried to ban the audio cassette tapes, outlaw VCR’s and ban mp3’s will now get to decide which websites are allowed to be seen on the internet. They will act as gate-keepers, and key holders to the biggest information exchange platform in existence.
You know how movie studios and TV networks are butt-hurt about loosing business to streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu? Worry not, there will be no more social media related start-ups – they will be squashed in infancy, and removed from the American web. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t want to use these slippery slope arguments, because they are usually silly and sensationalist. Yes, SOPA could be potentially used to thwart dissenting political speech (remember, the burden of proof is on you so anyone could allege you are infringing to quiet you down). Yes, it will wreck and balkanize the internet. Yes, it will remove DNS root authority from US control and will fracture the world wide web. But let’s not talk about any of that.
Let’s talk about what SOPA will mean to an average American. After all, services such as Facebook or Youtube are too big to shut down via SOPA. They are owned by big corporations, with a lot of money and lawyers who can make sure they stay up, even when found infringing. So movies, and TV shows will still get uploaded to Youtube as usual. Nothing will change there, so what is the big deal, you may ask?
Well, think about smaller online services you use every day. Ones that are not backed by multi-million dollar corporations. They would be voulnerable. Let me give you an example. I use a service called DropBox to sync files between all my computers. I have all my lecture slides, class notes and exam documents in there so that I can access them on my desktop, laptop, work computer and instructor workstation in class. It is useful, intuitive and very easy to use. Do I have anything infringing in my Dropbox folder? No, I don’t. Do people use Dropbox to share infringing files? Yes, they do. Or at least they have the capability to do so. You can make some of your files public and accessible to everyone, or share them with select other users of the service. DropBox does not check, filter or verify the content you upload – in fact, it encrypts it to keep your data safe. So it could easily be used to illicitly exchange copyrighted files.
If SOPA passes, I could very well one day wake up to an internet where DropBox is no longer accessible. Why? Because one to many people put Lady Gaga’s newest song in their public shared folder and DropBox got listed as a rogue site. Was it my fault? No. Could I have done anything to prevent it? Of course not. But am I getting fucked in the ass without lubrication, and blocked from accessing legitimate service I legally paid for? You bet!
I use Facebook and Yahoo’s Flickr for most of my photo sharing needs, but I know bunch of people who swear by a smaller Canadian photo/video sharing service called Fotki because of their pricing, features and customer service. While I always keep redundant backups of my pictures, a lot of people tend to trust the cloud with their data. They upload stuff to a service and forget about it – because statistically speaking paid services are actually more careful about backups than your average clueless citizen. But if SOPA passes, Fotki – a smaller, foreign service could potentially get blocked. Thousands of American users may find themselves without access to their treasured vacation pictures, or that funny video from their son’s first birthday. Would these people be at fault? No, they would just be collateral damage.
I mentioned that Youtube will probably stay up no matter how many infringing videos it hosts. But smaller services such as Vimeo, Daily Motion or Blip TV – do you think they have a similar immunity? People use these services because they offer different features than Youtube – they allow larger videos, they have better advertising revenue sharing plans, and etc.. Do people use them to stream illegal content? Of course they do. And if a few misguided assholes upload bunch of videos they were not supposed to, all these services could potentially be censored.
Not only that – a lot of shows on Blip are review shows which use clips and sound-bytes from copyrighted features. While such a thing is generally protected under fair use clause of copyright law, there are no exact guidelines as to quantities, clip lengths and etc. Fair use is intentionally left vague so that it can be interpreted on case by case basis and so that arbitration can be established between the potential infringer and copyright holder. But SOPA sidesteps that, and allows anyone to demand a website to be censored without the burden of a proof.
So it could happen that Nostalgia Critic, Nostalgia Chick or, I don’t know, The Spoony Experiment release particularly scathing and hilarious review, that rubs some Hollywood ego-maniac the wrong way, and suddenly the entirety of Blip TV disappears from the internet.
Last week, bunch of reviewers from Channel Awesome went to Washington to talk to congress about their concerns. A group of young, bright people who make their living reviewing copyrighted content on the internet went to talk to politicians about the future of their jobs because they are genuinely terrified of this new legislation and what it can mean for their business model. What did they congress critters say to them? Just watch their recap of the event:
They were met with wall of incomprehension. Not only did the politicians they talked to not understand the law they were trying to pass, they were also not even consistent in the way they described and framed it. The census was “we were told that this needs to pass to protect intellectual property, so we will pass it, but don’t you worry your little heads about your silly joke website – we’ll make sure it won’t get blocked without a reason”.
No one in Washington seems to understand how the internet works and how SOPA will affect it, nor do they care. They just want to pass this legislation, because the people who fund their election campaigns told them to, and because they don’t want to lose face by backing out of it. They don’t realize that this law will fundamentally change the way the internet works, and that it may have a profound impact on online commerce, advertising and social media that are few of the things only marginally affected by the current recession. Even though they all say they are about job creation, and prosperity they are now dead set on passing a law that may really, really hurt the economy of United States. It is terrifying.
They will be voting on SOPA this Wednesday, December 21st. Call your representative, and let them know how you feel about this law. Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. This thing is really, really bad. It will affect all of us. Please help us stop it before it is to late.