SOPA: Barricading the Information Superhighway

If you haven’t heard about SOPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act — you will soon. The bill aimed at halting digital piracy is being debated in a Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives. It is expected to pass both the House and Senate.

Despite the likelihood of ratification, it is almost comical how former supporters are defecting and trying to distance themselves from it as a vote approaches. Most notably, GoDaddy, the giant of Internet hosting and domain registration. They pulled their support as they became the target of a grass roots boycott

Will it pass? Perhaps. Can it be enforced? Of course not! Will it change anything. No. This leads to an obvious question: Why bother? The answer is typical of Washington politics: SOPA is supported inside the beltway because law makers are out of touch, because Hollywood and the music industry have effective lobbyists, and because it makes for good politics. [continued below]…

But what about the underlying issue? Is digital piracy wrong? Is it reasonable and just to at least try to stem the tide? The cause is just but the proposed mechanism of enforcement is not. In fact, almost any effort to stop digital piracy is futile. The problem must be addressed by rethinking the very purpose and nature of copyright law.

I have mixed feelings about casual consumer piracy of copyright content (music, movies, books and software). My brother will not watch a movie streamed from my home server, because he questions the legality of the original source or rip. Yet he allows his children to use my Netflix account even though it is not authorized for access from his home TV. (He rationalizes that at least someone has licensed the content!). I get it. I realize that some of my music and movies were copied without permission, but I actually own most of the originals. It was simply easier to grab it from Napster or Bit Torrent than to locate and RIP my own CD, DVD or Blu-Ray. Without trying too hard to get into the philosophical argument (is it theft? is it fair? is it enforceable?), SOPA goes too far. It doesn’t criminalize behavior (digital pirates are already breaking the law). Rather, it makes a snitch out of the carrier and then requires the carrier to actively participate in blocking the transmission.

This is feel good politics at its worst. What’s wrong with it?…

  • It can’t work. The economics of free content combined with improving mechanisms of anonymity guarantee that digitized works will spring eternal through other channels. Political restrictions only undermine the growth and influence of the Internet, but not it’s distributed and empowering nature.
  • It leads to a police state – and a very slippery slope!
  • It shifts the burden of protecting content & policing users to the wrong parties
  • It defies the principles that make the internet robust, open & productive. While this may sound like a cop out, I honestly believe that we should not cripple the medium. There are other ways to skin this cat.

By now, Wild Ducks know the drill: So sayeth Ellery!