Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Internet Goes Dark

Okay, the title of this post is an exaggeration, but a number of prominent sites have basically shut themselves down today (e.g., Wikipedia,, Reddit, I Can Has Cheezburger) in protest of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills that are currently before Congress.
I'm certainly not an expert on either intellectual property or the internet, and I'm not exactly sure how I feel about these two bills, but, at the very least, I think they're important enough that people ought to be paying attention to them and keeping an eye on what our legislators are doing as they set up some new rules and laws that govern cyberspace.
I've already had some discussions with people about SOPA, and I've already come to realize that the issues presented by these bills are fairly complex and not nearly as straightforward as some of the propaganda surrounding them would have you believe.
At their heart, I think SOPA and PIPA probably have good intentions.  They strive to protect the intellectual property rights of content creators who really do need some legal protections for the products that they're creating if they're going to be able to continue to make a living by creating and distributing content.  People can't financially sustain themselves by writing, taking photographs, making art, recording music, etc. if their products are subject to being stolen and distributed freely the moment that they appear online.  I've heard some extremely idealistic thinkers try to argue otherwise, claiming that we should live in some sort utopia where all content is free, but this just isn't realistic.  If people can't make a living generating content, the content itself is going to suffer.  I don't really want to live in a society where all artists, writers, musicians, etc. have to pursue their work in a part time, amateur fashion because there's no way to support themselves by making any real money off of their work.  Obviously there are many exceptions to this rule, but I think there's truly something to be said for the quality of work that can be done by people who are doing it full time and focusing on it as their sole profession. 
On the other hand (and this is where the debate begins in earnest) it's far from clear that SOPA is the best way to police the distribution of intellectual property on the internet. 
The current wording of SOPA seems to require (at least according to the bill's critics) website hosts to police and monitor all content that their users are putting up on their site or face a potential shtudown of the entire site.  This means online website hosts for sites that have thousands and thousands of users (like the site that hosts this blog) are going to be responsible for the content put up by all of their users.  Also, the burden of proof in refuting an allegation after an infringement accusation would fall upon the service provider, with no possibility of recovering damages from the accuser if a false allegation is made (unless proof could be made that the accusation was made for an intentionally fraudulent purpose).  Sites could be shut down very quickly and remain offline while the matter was sorted out, so loss of viewers (i.e., revenue) would be incurred by the hosting site, even if the claim ultimately proved groundless.
Critics of SOPA claim that this might have a huge chilling effect on the internet.  Hosts for blogging sites, for example, might not be willing to continue to host blogs because the work produced by their individual users might subject them to damages (and, the hosts claim, the costs of internally policing the content of users might be too high to make the continued operation of such sites feasible).  Sites like Youtube would likely suffer from similar problems with the video content being posted by their users.
Soooo.... people don't want the chilling effect of making host sites responsible for the intellectual property of user content.  Critics of SOPA have tried to protray this as a fight of the little guy versus big, wealthy publishing firms, movie studios, and recording companies, but it's not quite that simple.  Large firms like Google, Youtube, and other web publishers definitely, of course, have a dog in the fight, too.  They don't want to face the prospect of their sites being shut down whenever there's a violation by one of their users (and they rely on their users to generate their product).  Also, they don't want to have to bear the substantial cost of internally policing all of the content that goes up on their sites.
That second point is a slightly less sympathetic argument, though, if you're a content producer or distributor who's trying to make a living off of intellectual property that you legally own.  Why, exactly, should sites like Youtube or Blogger get to draw an audience and/or readers for their site when some of their audience might be drawn to the site in the first place by pirated content that the site hosts don't legally won?  If you're spending a lot of money to publish literary material, record songs, or make movies and you're trying to get a return on your investment, it's going to be pretty annoying to see the people over at Youtube making a whole lot of cash off their site while you're material (appearing illegally on their site) racks up thousands of hits.  So Google and Youtube, after all, are wealthy companies that are making a lot of money off of the content on their sites.  Why shouldn't they be responsible the material that they're publishing, regardless of which particular user publishes it?  After all, if the host provider isn't the one responsible for monitoring the content (even though that content is helping them make money), then the person responsible for policing violations becomes the property owner, and they end up being the ones bearing the cost of watchdogging the internet and protecting their property from theft.  This doesn't sound entirely fair, either, especially when you're talking about significant amounts of pirated content.
Anyway,  the issues are complicated, and this has definitely been a quick and dirty discussion of the whole thing.  There are a bunch of other areas of SOPA that are also controversial (some involving offshore websites and copyright infringement, others involving technical issues about the mechanics of tracking copyrighted material in digital formats). 
As I said at the beginning, I'm not an expert on this area of the law or the internet itself, but I just thought I'd see if I could interest people enough to look up more about SOPA on their own.  It really does seem important.
Personally, I just want them to get it sorted in a way that allows little guys like me to continue to post a blog.  I'm not sure SOPA's the best way to get these issues sorted out, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that any solution to these intellectual property issues is going to have strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, strong critics. 


The League said...

The important thing to understand is that the internet is a series of tubes...

Its a complicated issue, and I'm sympathetic to content creators. But the legislation is terribly unsophisticated. Its a terrible analogy, but its a bit like giving clothing vendors the ability to shut down a whole shopping mall (through threat of lawsuit) if you find out one retailer is selling bootleg merchandise, and asking that the mall know what's on every rack and where it came from. By a factor of infinity (or, Mall of America, I guess).

So, anyway, series of tubes.

J.S. said...

That's not such a terrible analogy. Just have to remember, though, the fact that if the mall owner isn't responsible for hiring the security to watch out for that merchandise, than the people whose material is being copied will have to hire investigators to wander not only that mall, but a bunch of other malls, too, in order to make sure people aren't selling copies of their items. SOPA definitely puts a lot of strain on the hosts, but the current system put a lot of strain on the people holding the copyrights (who frequently hire firms or specialized employees to police for infringers).

The League said...

To extend the analogy, I wonder if its not like the mall employing "Mall Police" who don't wander the mall, they look at the books and check each shipment that comes in before the merchant can put it on the floor. Its not just an overhead headache, it fundamentally changes the model of commerce.

J.S. said...

Yeah, I guess. BTW, in terms of the sale of counterfiet goods (i.e., knockoffs that infringe on trademarks), the U.S. Supreme Court has so far refused to take the issue up (a lower court ruled that Ebay had no liability), but it sounds like the European Union's High Court has ruled that Ebay may, in fact, face liability for counterfeit goods sold on Ebay in Europe. Once again, this isn't the exact same thing as copyright under SOPA, but it provides an interesting IP analogy.