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SOPA/PIPA protest disappointments

Wed 18 Jan 2012 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

As you probably know by now if you live under a rock and get all your news through the Net, several popular sites are protesting current US proposed Net censorship laws. I'm glad to see that happen, and I'm glad that a lot of people are paying attention, and I don't want to understate how glad I am of those things. But I'm also disappointed by a lot of what I'm seeing, too.

I'm disappointed that Google hasn't blacked out their site. Google Canada is untouched; Google Japan has an unrelated monkey doodle; it's not easy to even see Google US from here (by default it redirects me to Google Canada) but if I make an effort to get past the redirect, I see the standard Google US front page with just a little link at the bottom encouraging people to protest Net censorship. That's less billing than they give to the birthdays of random 20th-Century visual artists. (UPDATE: It looks like Google is doing something more visible, with a black bar over their logo, for US-registered IP addresses; it's just not directly visible to us in the rest of the world. That's a step up; now they are giving freedom of expression the same billing as the birthdays of random 20th-Century visual artists.)

I'm disappointed that Wikipedia's blackout isn't for real. You can still access the site, you just have to use a phone or disable Javascript. I mentioned this to the students I was lecturing this morning, but some had already figured it out and were busy telling the others even in the few minutes before I started speaking; and it's explained on the page Wikipedia directs you to, so it's not exactly a big secret. It's claimed that this not-real shutdown is a good simulation of life under SOPA/PIPA: annoying inconvenience, but people will still be able to copy movies. I think that's the wrong lesson. We should instead be demonstrating that under SOPA/PIPA some important things worth keeping will really and truly be lost in a meaningful way, because that's true too. But demonstrating the existence and consequences of the chilling effects and stifled innovation, is hard.

I have some feeling that maybe Twitter and Facebook were right not to black out their sites, because their sites (unlike Google's) are (and this was predictable) now being used to discuss the issues in a way that may be even more powerful than a straight blackout would be. I'm a little disappointed by the number of Twitter users I see on @herpderpedia who are blaming Wikipedia itself for the blackout instead of blaming their politicians, but I'm telling myself that that's a sampling effect and lots of other people understand the issues better.(UPDATE: Best @herpderpedia tweet EVER: "Hey Zuckerberg Why you shut down wikipedia?")

I'm disappointed that now some politicians have promised to take out the DNS provisions from SOPA - having not even actually done so yet - some people think the story is over and we've won; and some people on the other side think that in return for this we should be expected to make concessions and compromises. There isn't room for compromise on Net censorship. Having a little Net censorship is like being a little bit pregnant. I'm disappointed that when President Obama - who, let's be clear, I still basically like - promised to veto the bill (except not really, he promised he wouldn't "support" it, which doesn't really mean anything), people believed that meant something. It's the same promise he made about NDAA, and he didn't veto NDAA.

I'm disappointed that attempts to frame the debate have been successful. I couldn't find, just now, an article I read earlier this morning from I think the Washington Post, but it tried to be balanced and present this debate as being between the two "extremes," using exactly that word, represented by the DMCA and SOPA, over who would have the responsibility for implementing censorship without due process. The DMCA position (which, bear in mind, is current law): censorship without due process should be the responsibility of copyright holders. The SOPA position: censorship without due process should be the responsibility of ISPs (and the government, but the article I read described it as the ISPs). Those certainly are both extreme positions, but they're at the same extreme! If we allow this to be a choice between them, then the terrorists have already won. The real question isn't who pays for the censorship without due process; the real question must be censorship itself. The choices are "yes" and "no," and I hope you know which one you stand for.

I'm disappointed that "End piracy, not liberty!" has, with Google's help, become a rallying cry to the point that it's trending on Twitter. That is a terrible slogan. It's more framing of the debate. "End piracy" may be the movie studios' goal, but it is not a goal any other rational participant should get behind. "End piracy" means "Allow copyright holders to exercise unlimited control and make their own laws about creative work." It means segmenting the market with region coding; it means media control by forbidding parody and other fair dealing; it means the DMCA's prohibition on "devices" and, as Doctorow described recently (link currently blacked out), it means a war on general-purpose computing devices.

"End piracy, not liberty!" suggests that instead of SOPA and PIPA, some other kind of unconscionable no-due-process stand against "piracy" might be okay and might even gain our support and participation. It wouldn't. "End piracy!" entails "End liberty!"; the slogan is contradictory on its face, and a world without "piracy" as that word is currently misused is a world you just don't get to have any more. It's certainly one I won't help you try to build. A big part of the point of having all the wonderful communication channels of the Net is that centralized control of communication is no longer viable. Centralized control of communication is not going to become viable ever again, and that's a good thing. We should not use a slogan that suggests centralized control of communication will ever be something to hope for. Nathan "Gnat" Torkington wrote a good article about that (link up now, was blacked out). It will never be 1965 again. Our slogan should be "End censorship, not piracy!"

I haven't blacked out my own site today because there would be no point. First order approximation: nobody reads my site. Second order approximation: everybody who reads my site is already well familiar with the issues. I only wish I had the kind of audience that would allow such a gesture to be in any way meaningful and hey, I'm disappointed that I don't have that, too.

Now we need to move beyond gestures and make sure that today's outrage really sticks. Don't just take the DNS provisions out of SOPA; the DNS provisions were catastrophic but so is the rest of the bill, and so is PIPA, which still contains basically everything that was in SOPA. We're in a world of hurt if either pass even without DNS provisions. Both bills must die entirely. Don't just kill SOPA and PIPA, the current incarnation of this spectre; we need to make sure, as Gnat said (if I'm remembering his article correctly), that Net censorship becomes poison. (ETA: no, it wasn't Gnat who said that. Now I have to go figure out where I read the line I'm remembering.) It needs to be the case that no politician will ever seriously consider proposing something remotely like SOPA or PIPA ever again.

But even that is not enough because we already have Net censorship anyway. We already have the DMCA and it already includes takedown provisions. We already had the fucking Communications Decency Act in fucking 1996, and I've been warning you about it the whole fucking time. We've got national firewalls not only in China but also in Australia, which passes for a Western-style democracy, and we've got the Conservatives in power in Canada with an explicitly evidence-rejecting view of what constitutes good government and an established desire to appease US copyright cartels. ("We're not governing on the basis of the latest statistics.") Just not making any new Net censorship laws this time in the USA isn't enough; we need to actively get rid of the already-existing Net censorship laws, worldwide and especially at home. Net censorship must become poison including existing Net censorship. I'm disappointed that we haven't heard that narrative a lot more loudly so far today.

5 comments

owen
My take on all this is that PIPA/SOPA is just a giant red herring to shift the main focus of online ire away from the NDAA and onto something much more fluffy.

Government: "We want to detain you without due process forever."
Internet: "meh."
Government: "We want to block you from seeing unlimited lolcats!"
Internet: "OMG PANIC!"

Seriously, who gives a fuck about DNS routing when the guys who run the DNS can simply be black-bagged and taken away in a WackenHut SUV? owen - 2012-01-18 14:09
Matt
I often disagree with your wacky conspiracy theories, Owen, but in this case, I think you may be right. At the very least, the furor over SOPA has done a good job of distracting everyone in Canada from the Canadian version of an extended-copyright Bill, and if that passes, then its backers will be in a good position to argue that the USA has to "catch up" to Canada, and quietly bring it all in through a trade agreement. Matt - 2012-01-18 14:19
Steve
Apparently "the internet beat SOPA" at least that's what the news sites are saying while completely ignoring the much bigger story of Megaupload. A non-US company operating outside of the US that is somehow subject to US laws. Steve - 2012-01-21 03:17
Matt
Yeah, I don't know what to think about Megaupload. As I said on Twitter, the timing sure looks deliberate, like they were trying to prove something... but I don't see how it would be something they would want to prove. It sure looks like the message is, "We don't need SOPA to let us move against foreign sites, we can do it *anyway*!" but that doesn't support any further attempts to pass SOPA or SOPA-like laws.

I keep picturing Bugs Bunny telling Elmer Fudd "You do realise this means war." Matt - 2012-01-21 07:50
nichole
I'm assuming you've heard of the "Protect Children from Online Pornographers" act.

Orwell is rolling. nichole - 2012-01-23 12:38


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