Yes, I Do Care About SOPA

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Every once in a while, you’ll turn your head towards US politics and see some pretty dystopian stuff going on. Today, several websites blacked out, including Wikipedia and Reddit. More websites are planning to black out in the coming week. The black-out is intended to protest two bills the US Senate will be trying to pass on the 24th: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). Under the act, corporations could force websites to remove content suspected of infringing copyright, which is all well and good. The fear is that the wording of the bill is vague enough to allow corporations wide-spanning power to essentially shut down any site, without investigation.

The most interesting aspect of this debate is that it really illuminates the flux that the post-Internet world is in. In the NYT article on the black-out, Texas Rep Lamar Smith is quoted as saying, “The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social network sites.”

What a reductive way of looking at the Internet. No wonder there’s no much fear from the tech world.

The Internet is a new way to create, communicate and teach, but if you just look at it as a vehicle for office e-mails, blogs about your cat, and Facebook, well, then, yeah, who cares about censorship laws?

No wonder, then, the fear coming from the tech world, who likely see these bills as written by a group of Luddite wealthy, white men trying to drag the world kicking and screaming into a kind of idealized 1950s.

Hell, even newspapers seem to look on with a kind of amused attitude (which makes sense, given that the Internet stabbed the print industry in the heart).

“The Internet Goes On Strike — Do You Care?”
asks The Globe and Mail, as if the black-out was just the primadonna gestures of a bunch of prickly computer geeks.

Writer Zack Parsons once lamented that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and we’re all slowly dying playing computer games on the Internet. But Parsons is the editor of Somethingawful, so of course he spends most of his time around Internet addicts and keyboard cowboys. But consider the massive section of the population for whom the Internet is just a necessary evil. That, I think, is who the Globe And Mail is addressing, when they ask, “Do you care?”

Well, yeah, why would they care? Who would the US government censor? Your Facebook? Your cat video? Maybe you’ll buy a goddamn newspaper next time.

But the black-out is about the bigger issue. Even if you only use the net to look at funny pictures of Facebook before going out to play Ultimate Frisbee, you’d have to admit that the Internet is much more than e-mail and cat videos.

At its best and most noble, the Internet connects people across the world, organizes grassroots political movement, galvanizes revolutions and unions, and acts as a weapon to protect the weak from the strong. When there’s police brutality, it goes up on the Net. When a company makes a mistake, it’s up on the Net. It forces accountability.

If you give sweeping censorship powers to corporations, that’s a problem. It turns the Internet on its head. Now the strong can crush the weak, the wealthy can stop the poor.

Yes, at its worst, the Internet creates a space that cultivates anonymous cruelty and a disregard for intellectual property laws. It’s this latter that the new bills are trying to stop.

But as the tech industry points out, the act won’t stop piracy. Pirates can easily sidestep the methods used to “block” targeted websites. If you read a lot of Cory Doctorow, you’ll know that this is the usual disadvantage of Digital Rights Management efforts–pirates are tech-savvy enough to get around DRM technology, so only honest users are penalized.

Another fear the tech industry brings up is that the bills will allow corporations to target websites for hosting or linking to user-created content that infringes intellectual property. This is like if you walked into a mall and started selling scalped tickets, and the whole mall was shut down. Sites can be targeted for “facilitating” actions suspected of infringing intellectual property. Which can really mean anything.

The more important fear is that the passing of these bills will set a dangerous precedent, and an example for other governments. When I was over in China in 2004, the Chinese government blocked all access to personal websites, in case of inflammatory or dissenting information.

For the US to take a step in that direction seems like a step backwards to me. If you don’t agree with that, chances are you’re in a country where you should stop reading this article before the People’s Police Of Correct Thought breaks into your apartment and brutalizes you.

The question is: Is the black-out protest going too far to stop a bill that is only intended to block Swedish servers hosting bootlegged copies of Girl with A Dragon Tattoo? I don’t think so.

Do I Care? I think I do. I think that this is a moment in US politics that we should all be interested in. For the sake of freedom of information, or otherwise.

 
 

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