SOPA: Post Mortem

I haven’t been talking all that much about SOPA on this blog because my world was a bit over saturated with it. More or less every news site and blog I frequent was freaking out about it (and for a good reason). The geek community was on top of it, and so were my readers. So I opted to take the “business as usual” approach and deliver you my usual fare of entertainment, instead of beating the same dead horse as everyone else.

This is also why Terminally Incoherent did not go black on Jan 18. It’s not that I wasn’t supporting the cause. If you follow me on Twitter you know I have been very vocal about my hate for SOPA and PIPA bills. In fact, I did have an anti SOPA overlay script up on the page for one day sometime in December and I don’t think anyone noticed, because no one has ever mentioned it. My audience is just too smart – between the RSS feed readers and add blockers it’s a wonder my AdSense account is getting any money at all.

I thought about participating in the blackout long and hard and decided there was just no point to do it. The entire purpose of the Jan 18 blackout was to spread awareness. Before, the anti-SOPA rhetoric was mostly contained withing tech-savvy communities. Places like Reddit or Hacker News were the vocal hot spots, boiling with seething rage, but mainstream news outlets mostly ignored SOPA leaving the mainstream clueless and ignorant. Blacking out popular websites not only delivered the message straight to the previously oblivious end users, but also forced mass media to finally start covering the controversial bills (often in disingenuous damage control mode). And as such it was an overwhelming success.

We have won. We geeks have put our foot down and turned the tide. We have reached out to the general public, shook them out of their usual lethargic ambivalence and made them think. We managed to scare the living shit out of the bunch of greedy politico’s who have previously been motivated only by cold hard cash:

SOPA support before and after the blackout

SOPA support before and after the blackout

Never before have I seen such a display of solidarity out on the World Wild Web and it made me proud to be a Netizen and an Internaut. I almost felt guilty not blacking out my site. But then again, whom would it convince? Was there anyone I have not reached with my Twitter ramblings and my other SOPA post? Were there any Terminalists out there that really needed to be made aware of the problem? I don’t think so. So while blacking out Terminally Incoherent would have been a nice gesture, it would also have been a completely empty one. Now, if I was running any kind of mainstream popular site I would have shut it down.

The point is that we have won. SOPA and PIPA got shelved, and the politicians were taught a lesson that the the internet has simply too much of an impact on all facets of modern life – from online commerce, to freedom of expression – to be “patched” with some rushed legislation written by their paymasters from the entertainment industry. Whether or not they will remember this lesson when they are up for another round of campaign funding remains to be seen. But we have won an important battle last week, and that is something to be celebrated.

While we were still drunk with our victory, the feds exacted a terrible revenge and took down Megaupload – the biggest “cyber locker” on the internet, and the prime target of SOPA and PIPA. They just took it the fuck down. It did not matter that it was a foreign rogue site that was previously untouchable. It did not matter that the servers and the employees of the company were scattered throughout New Zealand, Europe and Asia. The long arm of US law reach over, across the international borders, over the oceans and brought down the ban-hammer upon it.

All we could do was watch, slack jawed and bewildered. The entertainment industry and their hand-puppet senators claimed that SOPA and PIPA were necessary because of sites like Megaupload. They needed these laws passed to effectively deal with such threats to their intellectual property. And then, just as we repelled their legislation on the grounds of allowing for overbearing censorship, the government turned around and winked one of entertainment industry’s to-ten enemies out of existence. And it did it without any draconian laws, proving that we have been correct fighting against it. It invalidated one of the key arguments for SOPA.

But they did it at the cost of shutting down a pretty cool website. Now, I can’t really say I have used Megaupload much, or for legit purposes, but I think the nuclear strike against them was a bit much. Especially since the company was taking steps to clean up it’s image, and limit the rampant piracy using automated take down tools.

Ars Technica published pretty good overview of the charges levied against the company, and some of them are legitimate. It seems that the founders were a little bit too cocky, and a little bit too forward in their internal communications giving the feds ample proof that they purposefully dragged their feet on copyright issues, and bragged about profits made on pirated content. They purposefully configured their system in such a way that would make complete removal of an offending file difficult, and re-upping it easy. So while Megaupload was guilty of profiting from piracy, the take down sets up a nasty precedence.

It clearly shows that there is no such thing as safe harbors and that even foreign sites can be taken down if the user-submitted content you host is found infringing on US copyright and the entertainment industry is not happy with your take-down performance. This does not bode well for social media and information exchange hubs that allow user submitted content. Most user driven sites have to deal with a fair share of infringement perpetuated by their users, and now having lost their precious censorship bills the MPAA and RIAA will be bearing down on the fed to “pull off megaupload” on all kinds of other services.

What is going to be the next target? Rapidshare maybe? Or perhaps Youtube. After all, Youtube is full of potential IP infractions. Other than spoiled and corrupt management, what makes Youtube different from Megapload? Mostly their compliance to the unreasonable demands of the entertainment industry. Google, often to the chagrin of it’s users, promptly removes all videos that are reported to be infringing, without checking whether the report is legit or not. They also use automated filters to match and detect copyrighted material. They have spent quite a bit of money and resources to build these reporting and filtering systems, and yet the copyright holders still whine and cry that it’s not enough. Google has deep pockets, but constantly diverting resources to keep entertainment industry lawyers at bay must be a financial drain even on them. Imagine how taxing this must be on new social startups.

In the post megaupload world, all smaller user-submitted media sites can be vulnerable to legal actions against them if they do not not perform to the entertainment industry’s expectations. The brutal take down of the world’s largest cyber locker proves that show of good will, and having anti-piracy systems in place is not enough. These systems must also be efficient, otherwise you may be accused of conspiracy to profit on infringement.

The problem with that is that no one has ever created such a system that works. Google, with all it’s resources and brain power is only able to filter a small fraction of infringing files, and it can only take down videos as fast as the copyright holders can report them. Blocking all infringing content is just something that we do not know how to do – at least not with our current technology. But now, your performance at attempting to do the impossible may be what determines whether or not your site is found to be engaging in criminal activity. And this is disconcerting.

So while we won on SOPA, there might still be hard times ahead. Especially since the entertainment industry is not going to give up that easily. The politicians might have been reminded who they really work for on the 18’th but I doubt they will be able to resist campaign contributions next time they are up for re-election. We know it, and the copyright moguls know it. In fact, the MPAA director was so bold, as to issue a public statement threatening to withdraw financial support from the politicians who don’t do as they are told.

It’s like they are not even playing coy anymore. MPAA is boldly asserting their ownership of US government, PR be damned. The sudden reversal of SOPA support in congress has really pissed them off and they are itching for round two. And I guess you can’t blame them – the whole SOPA fiasco have probably just cost them few million dollars in bribes political campaign contributions and now they have nothing to show for that money. I’m not sure what their next move is going to be, but it may involve the rather obscure bill named H.R.1981 or “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011”. They will push hard to tuck most, if not all SOPA and PIPA provisions into that bill, knowing full well no one in their right mind will want to vote against it. Publicly opposing such legislation is virtually a political suicide, and if MPAA manages to get their censorship language added into it, we will have a very, very hard battle ahead of us.

If PCIP becomes the new SOPA, a blackout may not be enough. So we must remain vigilant, and keep tabs on our congress critters like we never have before. The war is far from over, and despite our recent triumph the cards may be stacked against us.

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13 Responses to SOPA: Post Mortem

  1. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The main problem is really not SOPA or PIPA or whatever PA they cook next time. The main problem is that the US democracy has long become an empty shell. It has become a plutocratic Republic, with a semblance of power check and balance. The reality is that the coupling of the majority voting system (enforcing the two party system) and the free funding of politics by big business has killed the democratic life. The US constitution has been rendered moot by powers external to the institutions. Unless the legal system is profoundly changed, this kind of issue will happen even more frequently.

    Another major problem is that any democracy, to function properly, requires a relatively high level of education (both civic, social and academic) of its citizens. Otherwise, even with excellent institutions, demagoguery and marketing can easily change the system in an idiocracy. The USA, with its extremely unequal educational system, is geared towards such an end.

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  2. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    The problem is that USA has so much power over internet. They control DNS, they can bully most of the governments into doing whatever they want. It’s about time we create something more resistant to the whims of politicians and lobbyists than the infrastructure currently in place. TOR is nice and good, but it’s way too slow for general use and unless I do something highly illegal it seems like an awful waste of my time.

    @ Alphast:

    Yes, that’s depressingly true. It’s like watching train wreck in slow motion, I could easily see USA losing it’s edge with the way corporations are gaining all the power.

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  3. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Been reading from a recently-new laptop recently, had yet to tell NoScript to trust you…

    Didn’t need telling though, and if I had done I’d have picked up the gist from Twitter.

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Also, experimenting to see if changing the email I put in the box brings back my little “Terminalist” banana

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Alphast:

    Well said. The two party system is indeed quite broken – especially when you realized that while the two parties can’t agree on taxes or social issues, both have the same love for big business, special interest, wars and military spending and neither one cares much about personal liberty of the individual citizens.

    I think someone posted an interesting graph some time ago on reddit that compared campaign budgets in the last 5-6 elections and how without fail the candidate who collected more money always won. It’s a correlation, yes, but still – if we assume it is an actual trend then Citizens united might have been the last nail in the coffin of our democracy.

    I had this idea once for a fictional setting where democratic society set up a system in which anyone running for a public office must take a vow of poverty for the duration of their campaign and their entire term if elected, wearing identical hooded monk like attire to hide their body shapes and faces so that people can pick them based on their platform and not secondary characteristics, or amount of funding. I guess my idea was that a political position ought to be a burden and a sacrifice you make to serve your country, rather than a pedestal for your ego.

    @ Liudvikas:

    Yeah, you would think that EU ought to be making a big stink about this, demanding an equal share in governance of the internet. They should. Most of the keys to a global network should not be held by a single nation – even if it happens to be “good guy super-power” right now.

    @ Matt`:

    Heh. My problem with NoScript is that it breaks all my bookmarklets. I use quite a few of them actually.

    – One for posting things to Tumblr
    – One for posting things to Pintrest
    – One for Googe Bookmarks
    – One for to shorten links for Twitter
    – Etc..

    Oh, and yes – the bannana is bound to your email.

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  6. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    Write a book with that setting. Anyway it’s not a bad idea, but even then with poverty vow, they still have power.
    What we need is to elect those who don’t want to be elected. :D

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  7. Zac GERMANY Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux says:

    I recently filmed an international school’s wind ensemble concert, and decided to upload all the clips to youtube. I didn’t expect there to be any problems with copyright, as all the songs in question were traditional, composed around 1848, and there were only a few arrangements thrown in here and there (albeit they granted public performance and recording rights, so long as it was non-commercial and was performed from reading only original copies).

    Yet 60% were content matched by a “music rights holding group”, even though I could quickly locate copies in the public domain.

    Radetzky Marsch – a Strauss from 1848 – owned and copyrighted. A Chopin piano piece performed from memory – taken.

    Something’s incredibly wrong here.

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  8. Mitlik UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Latching onto a side topic from this post: I think more people that use ad blockers need to be made aware that they are denying content providers that they enjoy the ability to collect funds for the advertising on their site. I white-list sites that I frequent, and to be honest in a well done site like terminally-incoherent or it doesn’t detract from why I am there. And then, if the ads prove to be too annoying then turn it back on. A great example is on Youtube. I would like to give the people made partners a chance to collect something for their time, but until Google takes out all the annoyance in the advertising (putting adds over where text is most likely to go wtf?) I will just have to keep ABP up. Do you use a general rule for when you disable ad blocking for a website?

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    True, but I also had in mind a complete role reversal. The politicians don’t have an office – they have a cell, with a cot and a small desk, just like monks do. Anyone may demand an audience at any time, and they must oblige if possible. Then they must personally bring you a comfy chair, and attend to your needs while they sit on a bare stool or on the floor.

    Furthermore politicians would have limited personal liberties – for example, they would have no right to personal privacy of any kind. They would not be permitted to receive gifts of any kind, and would receive no salary – their modest needs for shelter and food would be provided by the state while in office. If married, they would have to leave their family home and live in the monastic setting for the duration of their campaign and their term to emphasize that their public service takes priority over matters of personal life.

    After serving their term they would not be permitted to take up employment in the private sector for a set number of years, to prevent the revolving door syndrome.

    There would also be memes established to make the public view politicians as their humble servants and advisers rather than rules. The measure of politician would be how well he serves the constituents, rather than how well he “governs”.

    @ Zac:

    That’s because these media groups cheat and game the system. DMCA is horribly broken, and Youtube follows it to a tee, preferring to err on the side of caution. Their filters are imperfect, but they use “if in doubt, block” policy to cover their asses. The performances you uploaded are perfectly legal, and should not be blocked but the system we have is already stacked against us.

    @ Mitlik:

    Thank you! This is very true. I usually keep adblock on most of the time, but I disable it for blogs and sites I like. For example I have most of the stuff in the sidebar whitelisted so that I at least view their ads. If I remember, I try to click on adds on favorite blogs from time to time. I never actually bought anything from an add, but clicks do generate a bit of revenue so I feel like I’m helping.

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    So it would be something like in Anathem.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    I would say reverse Anathem. In Anathem the political gaggle of anti-intellectuals (the panjadrums) kept the educated caste of thinkers and philosophers sequestered and suppressed, mostly because they did not trust themselves to govern these people and the resources they bring well.

    My monk-politicians would not be cut off from the world though. They would be expected to live active public lives assisting, listening and advising their constituents.

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  12. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    I’d read that.
    Although I for one can’t wait for AI’s to take over.

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  13. G-man UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I wasn’t surprised that you didn’t post a lot of info here about SOPA/PIPA, for the reasons that you mentioned. I was more surprised that there was not more circulation of information about ACTA, which DID pass in a lot of countries already, and is almost as bad. It’s a strange and crazy world that we live in.

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