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SOPA and PIPA: the new terms of service

I started drafting a piece that would look at SOPA and PIPA and this whole wave of internet regulation that seems to be sweeping the halls of congress. But two things kept tripping me up. First off, there are already reporters and sites doing a far better job than a simple part-time blogger could do(I recommend The Verge and Nilay Patel for some of the best analysis). And secondly, that the news was coming so quickly in the past week that before I could get a solid thought down, something else had happened. But I still have to say my piece on this. In writing this piece it became a fruitless task to try and “out think” a lot of very good writers who have tackled this from every angle. But I think something that few people are really focusing on, at least for now, is that SOPA is merely one small piece of a grander attempt, both by the US government and corporations to corral the the internet into a more manageable form.

Much of the internet is up in arms over SOPA(Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA(Protect Intellectual Property Act), the twin bills of the apocalypse. A recent petition even got the President to release a statement on the matter. At this point, the outcry from the public and concerned corporations like Google has slowed SOPA's momentum (and to a degree PIPA's.) Its great to see people paying close attention to legislation. However, the language from those in power is not one of outright opposition, but instead looks to compromise or soften the rhetoric while still trying to regulate the Internet.

Consider the President’s statement: he does not say anything to the effect of “regulation isn’t needed, we need to redouble our efforts of enforcement using the tools we have.” There is no consideration that what we have works. The DMCA and other IP laws are quite strong, and were controversial when they were passed. Instead, he goes on to say, “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy...“ Piracy is pretty low on the list of things harming the economy, at the moment. It would seem that high amounts of consumer debt, outsourced labor and high-risk financial practices are far more dangerous than people streaming Transformers: Dark of the Moon from a .ru domain.

In fact, the music industry has finally adapted to the new market for their IP and are starting to make money again and the greatest successes came not from tightening down on customers, but on making their product easily available at a reasonable price. There are plenty of sites that are thriving in the context of “its easier than pirating.” Amazon, Steam and Netflix are three examples that come to mind. Yes, they do have some inconveniences, but the vast majority of users are satisfied with the relative trade off. I give them a reasonable amount of money, they give me content when I want it. Why then would we need tightened controls that empower a relative minority of organizations?
The refrain from SOPA opponents is that it will create a “Great Firewall” similar to the strictly controlled filters used by the Chinese government to limit civilian access to foreign sources of information. The affect on content and speech would isolate people and would concentrate power in the hands of those who held a tight grip on their intellectual property.

Nevertheless, the message of controlling who can access what when continues in Washington. The SOPA supporters believe that they need ways to adapt copyright law to a changing world where content is consumed online and is otherwise easy to replicate. The fact that many of these violators are overseas also makes it hard to arrest or otherwise punish them. Being able to completely cut them off from the single largest audience (the US) would go a long way to curbing infringement.

To a certain degree, I can understand their concerns. It is a big wild internet out there. Anyone with a little know how can put up a site, torrent or stream some DVDs or even sell fake merchandise. But the fundamental flaw is not the intent of the bills, but the methodology of interfering with potential IP infringement. For all intents and purposes, the bill WOULD create a "great firewall" between domestic and foreign networks and sites. At every turn in the bills, it defines the rules for foreign domains and how American companies can cut off communication and funding without trial or legal recourse on the part of the defendant. Because of the United States' dominance in internet content, hosting and policy decisions, it would force those inside this great firewall to play by slightly different rules and could fundamentally dictate communication and commercial activity outside of its own borders. Nilay Patel, over at The Verge hits the nail on the head. These bills try to address the problem indirectly, attacking the medium and taking the leg work of enforcement out of the hands of officials and putting it in the hands of lawyers. 

What is also interesting is that when you take these bills, and the OPEN act (which is still only a draft) the general consensus is that some form of further regulation will be enacted. The only question is when, and how extensive that regulation will be. While the companies with their vested interests are fighting for their millions and billions, none of this will benefit actual users. Its just so much easier for them to increase the penalties for violating copyright than it is to actually innovate and develop constructive solutions for everyone. That is the real tragedy in all of this.

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.


  1. It's kind of interesting that some of the main proponents of internet regulation are usually proponents of deregulation in other business and financial sectors.

    Also, is there research/evidence out there of just how much piracy costs corporations?

  2. Most figures on piracy are highly speculative (how many copies of an album can you NOT buy? Not everyone who torrents an album would have been an actual album, etc.) But what is interesting in the case of iTunes and the music industry is that it took a matter of market forces to finally put the industry back in the black. The price and ease of getting a legal copy became more than the effort and risk associated with downloading a torrent.

  3. I went to school with Rashad Evans. He can kick Nilay's ass.