#StopSOPA: a Reflection

The Internet got mad last Wednesday. You may have noticed that on January 18, Wikipedia and Reddit went dark and Google displayed a black rectangle over its normally colorful logo. These Internet giants—as well as hundreds of thousands of smaller sites—were protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister bill in the Senate: the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

The first true digital protest was surprisingly effective. If social networks and search engines are good at one thing, it is reaching a lot of people quickly. On Wednesday, 7 million people signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition126 million people saw Wikipedia’s blackout page, and 8 million used the page to look up contact information for their representatives. It was almost impossible to use the consumer Internet on Wednesday without coming across something about this legislation.

Apparently Congress listened. Between Wednesday and Thursday, 15 members of Congress dropped their support for the bills, and 70 members went from undecided to opposed. Just hours after the protests ended, both bills were dropped from the Congressional voting schedule. Now, both lack the support to be considered again.

For now...SOPA is dead and buried. If lobbying were a beer pong game, Hollywood executives would be running a naked marathon around Silicon Valley.

The Internet got what it wanted, but the conversation is not over. It is worth reflecting on SOPA and PIPA for two reasons: 1) to understand why they are perhaps the worst pieces of legislation ever written, and 2) to understand why we sort of need something similar. Stay with me.

Let’s tackle point #1 first. SOPA, as written, would have destroyed the Internet. To tackle the widespread issue of digital piracy, we needed tweezers—not the sledgehammer that was introduced on the House floor. Either the person who wrote SOPA had a painfully vague understanding of what the Internet is, or he hated it and wanted to kill it. Probably both.

The bill as written would have allowed the Justice Department to remove any website that displayed copy-written materials from the domain name registry, without due process. There are two things wrong with this. First, the punishment mechanism is silly. To be clear, removing a website from the domain name registry will not stop people from accessing it. It will, however, make accessing it needlessly difficult. If Google were removed from the domain name registry by this law, a user would have to type in one of Google’s IP addresses (for example http://74.125.224.72/) in order to access the site. This means that the URL “Google.com” would take you nowhere, but “Google.com” would still be around. Clearly the person who designed this punishment was confused.

Second, SOPA’s punishment criteria are extraordinarily broad. Punishing websites for hosting copy-written materials would mean that websites who allow people to post things would have to start policing their users. Or—in a more likely scenario under SOPA—websites would have to stop letting users contribute content.

Think of a website. Seriously, think of a website. Got one? Good. Were you thinking of YouTube, Facebook, Google, E-bay, Amazon, Wikipedia, Reddit, Twitter, any blog, any porn site, or literally any website with an upload button or a comment box? That site would have three choices under SOPA: 1) try to stop it’s users from posting copy-written material at great cost, 2) face legal action from the government, or 3) stop letting their users from posting anything at all. In the best-case scenario, the Internet would change dramatically to skirt around this law. In the worst-case scenario, the Internet would become completely useless. Email? Good luck.

Imagine a law that forced Toyota to choose between policing drunk drivers and removing all the doors from its cars before selling them. This is the choice SOPA would give to Internet firms. Toyota would probably stop selling cars. Facebook would likely be a shell of its former self. Find me a modern law that is written more poorly than SOPA. I will be flabbergasted.

However—and this is a big however—it is important to understand that the original spirit of SOPA was a good one. Online piracy is a serious issue that requires a serious solution.

Technologies such as torrenting (which was sort of invented by a CMCer) have made it easier than ever to steal content (aka digital music, software, and books). Widespread theft has become a significant issue for the creators of content. By almost any estimate, we have swapped billions of dollars worth of content with each other. It does not seem like we are going to stop on our own.

Let’s use some of our Econ 50 knowledge for a moment. If the creators of content cannot get paid for their work, many will be forced to stop creating content (or only the wealthiest will be able to continue to create). If people are asking for payment in return from their work—and we are not giving it to them—everyone loses. Do not get me wrong; it is wonderful when people do things for free. Wikipedia rocks. But we cannot rely on the spare time of the smart and creative to fulfill our desire for good writing, software, television and music. If we try, we will end up with crap. A culture of theft will eventually lead to a culture filled with things that are worthless.

Ending Internet piracy is a noble goal, and one that should be taken seriously by the government. Not to say I wasn’t raging with you, but the piracy party must end. We really ought to be paying people for their work.

The shutdown of MegaUpload by the FBI on Thursday was justified. The site was willfully providing a way for people to steal content. Their intent was to steal. Therefore, in our society, they should be charged with breaking the law. I may not agree with the way the shutdown was handled, but it is time to realize that we can’t expect to be able to take what we want. The laws of our society have to apply to the digital space just as they do in the physical space.

Yes, it is true: the digital space we are creating is much different than the physical space we were born into. It has very different properties. For instance, you can copy something an infinite number of times for almost no cost. Our capabilities inside the digital space are much, much different than we are used to; even those inventing our capabilities still do not understand them or can predict what they will be.

Because of these issues, our values and laws have to be applied differently to the digital space. However, one thing is for sure: a system of laws must be created for the Internet. Users today are making questionable choices that clearly contradict our system of values. There are parts of the Web that resemble the Wild Wild West or Hobbes’ state of nature. It’s time to address Internet crime with legislation. That legislation, however, must be written by someone knowledgeable of the Internet and its purpose.

Writing laws for the Internet will be one of the great challenges of our time. I only hope we can do it before the 60-year-old technophobes in Congress pass something like SOPA.