Friday, January 13, 2012

The congressional war on the internet

Somehow, I always knew this day would come.

For the first time in its short existence, 4:17 A.M. faces an existential threat. The copyright system -- never much loved around these parts -- has finally struck back, and is marshaling forces that could put an end to my little blog.

My antagonist is Congress. Its weapon: SOPA.

I'll admit, the idea is so preposterous that I didn't see it at first, but...

Wait, everyone knows what SOPA is, right? No?

Okay, let me back up a bit.

Short version: SOPA stands for the Worst Thing to Ever Come Out of Congress, at Least Since 2004 or So.

Longer version: SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it's a bill currently making its way through Congress. SOPA would give copyright holders the legal ability to block easy access to web sites that are "facilitating" copyright piracy.

Maybe that doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is.

For starters: many, many sites (to name a few small ones: Youtube, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter) allow users to post and share their own content. In doing so, they necessarily enable a certain degree of internet piracy. Copyright infringement happens every single day on these sites. (Have you ever e-mailed someone an MP3? Have you ever listened to an unofficial version of a song on Youtube? You're one out of millions.)

Right now, content publishers aren't held legally liable for the content created by their users. SOPA eliminates that protection and effectively puts all social media in the crosshairs of the MPAA, the RIAA, and any number of other of peevish, self-interested copyright holders.

Of course, SOPA probably isn't going to kill Youtube, or Google. But it will force Youtube and Google to become ultra-paranoid about their own users. In order to protect themselves from the law, these sites will have to closely monitor the content uploaded by people like you and me (which is creepy enough in its own right), and reject anything that bears a resemblance to copyrighted material. Even if you don't think the added expense would have a detrimental effect on technological development (and you'd be wrong), the sites would not have the resources to sift out true infringers from more marginal cases. In other words, you should expect parodies and artistic reinterpretations of old work (both of which are legally permitted) to get deep-sixed alongside actual duplicates. Huge swathes of content could simply evaporate overnight. The economic cost might be steep -- but it would pale next to the creative cost. Today, the internet is a thriving repository of universally-accessible culture, but that could all change in the blink of the eye if SOPA's copyright scolds get their way.

But that's not even the worst part. Whatever threat SOPA poses to massive, popular sites, its effects on small projects would be more oppressive. That's because the standards laid out in SOPA are so broadly drafted that almost anything might be construed to trigger its provisions. After all, a site can "facilitate" piracy without actually engaging in copyright infringement itself. Unlike Google, small sites erased by SOPA won't be able to fight back. They'll just disappear forever, and likely be quickly forgotten. (The potential for abuse is obvious. All rightsholders have to do is allege a copyright violation, and BOOM -- the government walls off access to a competitor or a promising startup.)

As I was saying. The idea is so preposterous that I didn't see it at first. But this very blog is threatened by SOPA's provisions.

Loosely interpreted, the bill could shut down web pages that encourage acts of online piracy (for example, by, I don't know, describing how to circumvent the NY Times paywall). It could close off access to sites that link to filesharing hubs (like It might even endanger sites that publish anti-copyright editorial content.

Really, what could be more absurd? My fly-by-night policy blog, targeted by an act of Congress. But stepping back, isn't even a close call. It's not a pirate site, but it's unabashedly pro-piracy. Nevermind that I have a combined readership of twelve or fifteen. Nevermind that virtually everything here is of a political nature. SOPA only has one response to any transgression, regardless of degree or intent. The nuclear option. Should some paranoid rightsholder stumble across my humble weblog, they could well add it to the ranks of the e-Disappeared.

Oh, I could appeal their claim... but the bill's appeal process is laughably insufficient. SOPA only provides for appeals in the first five days after a site's takedown. That's an unreasonably brief period in which to mount a complex legal challenge. The shortness of the allotted appeals period is probably, on its own, an insurmountable obstacle for many site owners.

So most likely, I'd just be out of luck. Oh well! It was nice while it lasted!

Among those in the know, there's nearly a complete consensus against SOPA. All the major tech companies oppose the bill. Most legal scholars oppose it as well.

But of course, congresspeople can rarely be described as "in the know," particularly when newfangled technologies like the personal computer is involved. So the bill plods forward, and the future of thousands upon thousands of sites, pages, apps, services, and companies -- some of impressive pedigree and some not yet even a spark of an idea in their creators' minds -- remains in doubt. Including, somehow, my silly little soapbox.

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