SOPA Ain’t the ProblemMatt Parrott
Portuguese translation here
It’s a good thing that SOPA and PIPA have been put on hold indefinitely by yesterday’s digital tantrum. Nothing delights me more than imagining a dark cloud of popular anger sweeping over Washington’s lobbyists, forcing them to scuttle like vermin from whatever evil-doings they were up to. The whole episode reminds me of the unanticipated fireball of popular outrage that destroyed John McCain’s attempt in 2007 to pass a sweeping amnesty bill.
But the whole thing was just a digital tantrum, and several commentators are correct in noting that while these sorts of outbursts have their place, the tech industry needs to devise a long-term strategy for defeating the entertainment industry weasels once and for all. And it’s not about my antisemitism or my dot-communist aversion to paying for intellectual property. They’re a genuine threat to free expression and need to be defeated.
Will Oremus at Slate insists that the tech industry needs to grow up and play the old-fashioned Influence Game in Washington…
Today’s blackouts will succeed in steering public opinion. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’ve seen the dawn of a new type of corporate lobbying. There’s a reason companies don’t just go on strike, Atlas Shrugged-style, every time they’re concerned about a new piece of legislation. Even the most well-regarded businesses can temporarily withdraw their services in protest only so many times before people lose patience and start to look for a permanent alternative.
Besides, the only reason the tech industry had to go nuclear is that they didn’t play the game well enough from the beginning. If tech lobbyists had been able to elbow their way to the table when SOPA and PIPA were being drafted, the laws would never have been so badly written. This guerilla anti-SOPA campaign surely wasn’t Plan A—it was an option of last resort, taken because the well-connected entertainment industry had the tech industry boxed out in D.C.
First of all, we have to step back and recognize the true scope of the problem. SOPA and PIPA are loosely worded and the threat of laws being taken out of context to achieve the veritable opposite of the intended effect is a valid concern. After all, earlier this week, a law which makes it the felony of “lynching” to wrench a suspect from an officer is being used against the left’s own Occupy Wall Street (lynch?) mob. Point taken, but the laws are being pushed by the entertainment industry are still pretty much about intellectual property.
The Internet has become the single most powerful weapon of the people against government tyranny, and I’m not only talking about it empowering people to “educate themselves” and fax nastygrams to their representatives. I’m talking about revolution, with the Arab Spring revolts having been largely organized and orchestrated through social networking sites like Twitter. Hillary doesn’t bat an eye or shed a tear when American soldiers are mangled in combat, but lies awake at night fearing that somewhere, somehow, there could be a video that drives home the stark reality of her wars waiting to go viral.
If the tech industry decides to become a lobbying force in Washington, then it’s going to lobby for its corporate interests–not for ours. It’s going to get behind closed doors and play the game. Up until this point, they’ve been relatively transparent and for the most part haven’t been evil (perhaps stupid). The near passage of SOPA has brought the age of innocence to a close for the tech industry, and the blackout campaign was merely a desperate stunt which bought them some time before facing the tough choice that awaits them: Become part of the evil Washington influence machine or be destroyed by it.
But there’s a third position — No, I’m not referring to that one! — a more radical position in which we rebel against the more important fact that the government can censor the Internet at all. The real problem is that the government is able to censor content on the Internet. Period. It’s a technical problem, not a legal or political problem. It should be treated as such by the tech industry. The fact that domain routing is at the behest of sovereign regimes and that ISPs can know or be held legally accountable for what you’re downloading or hosting is a security flaw in the model. The flaw wasn’t a big deal before the Internet was serious business, but the Internet is now serious business. In the grand scheme of things, SOPA is really only about whether Facebook is going to be held legally accountable for hosting images of Oprah on jet skis without permission from Harpo, LLC.
The encryption and onion-routing technologies exist and are relatively mature, but have yet to receive the same sort of institutional support necessary to levitate them beyond the seedy realm of pedophiles, political dissidents, hackers, and hobbyists. The dark network lurking beneath the web as noobs know it needs to rise up and take over. My mom’s email about my nephew’s latest exploits ought to be as difficult for the government to monitor or regulate as the PGP encrypted emails I send to my co-conspiring dissidents.
Our first obstacle is that the tech industry giants don’t really care about government censorship. In fact, they’ve gladly delivered up the names of untold hundreds of political dissidents to barbarous third world regimes in exchange for access to the regimes’ markets. They only care about this new SOPA censorship because being burdened with legal accountability for what their users upload threatens their business model of profiting off of what users upload. The second obstacle is also about money. The major tech corporations have business models which rely heavily on data mining your private emails and status updates to identify what your sexual inadequacies are so that web marketers can offer you the appropriate herbal remedy for the specific condition your ex-girlfriend’s teasing you about having on Google Chat.
The third and most important obstacle is our own ignorance: Nobody blames Google for having an email server which can be subpoenaed by whichever government happens to own the territory a server resides on. Sure, ain’t it a shame that the Chinese government is oppressing its people. Ain’t it a shame that the Iranian government tracked down and shot an Internet activist in Texas earlier this week? Ain’t it a shame that yogurt goes bad so quick? Yup, yup, and yup. But oppression is what governments do, and we should start demanding that our tech providers stop putting us in harm’s way by exposing us all to the greatest backdoor security vulnerability of them all: the warrant.
When we rally along with the tech corporations against bills like SOPA, we’re actually sort of enabling them to frame the debate in a way that draws the line of censorship at the point at which it threatens their business model–rather than at the point at which it threatens our freedom. It’s already over that line, and our focus needs to be invested in open source initiatives to secure the Internet against any and all government intrusion, lobbying tech corporations to support and collaborate with those projects, or even lobbying tech corporations to come up with their own proprietary solutions to the problem. Whatever works. But what doesn’t work is allowing ourselves as a community to be cuckolded by the tech industry. We shouldn’t rally in support of multinational corporations which are sanctimoniously wrapping themselves in the same flag of anti-censorship they’ve been wiping themselves with in virtually every censorship case that doesn’t threaten their business model.
SOPA sucks, and it should be defeated. But it ain’t the problem.
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