Update: there’s much dancing in the streets at the apparent withdrawal of SOPA/PIPA, after a huge public outcry and day-long internet protest. Great news, right? Except the redoubtable Lamar Smith, who believes himself to be an expert on both technology and civil liberties, has proffered a new law that requires ISPs to retain data on their customers’ activities online.

This one is meant to “protect children” (like the last one was intended to “stop piracy”)–seeing a pattern? Talk about Bad Thing (child predators, piracy), whip up hysteria—because, you know, people are too lazy and stupid to learn anything about how the internet works and will respond instead to fear mongering—then slip in laws that subvert civil liberties, violate privacy, and bypass due process. Here’s information about the new law, “Protect Children From Internet Pornographers” (read: “All Your Base Are Belong to Lamar Smith”), and here’s some more.

I do not share Lamar Smith’s views on the stupidity of the American public or the world citizenry of the internet. You know what to do.

Original post:

In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard all the hullabaloo about SOPA/PIPA, they are two bills currently wending their way the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, respectively–have a look at the Wiki article about it if you’re not familiar with the issue.

These bills, by their names alone (Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property), seem like good things. Even those who guiltily BitTorrent gigabytes of TV shows, music, and other material will acknowledge that hard-working creative professionals should be fairly paid for their work, and that piracy is theft. There’s no argument for it, only a free buffet for those willing to bend their morals a bit.

In fairness, I’ve resorted to torrenting things on occasion–I’m proud to say less than half a dozen times–but only when I absolutely could not locate the items in question through any of the usual channels, through which I’d happily have paid for them. But, as a content creator putting my work out there, I fully appreciate how piracy harms large and small alike, I’ve seen it from all perspectives, and I would not dream of ever pirating content today.

One especially memorable moment was when, thoughtlessly, I suggested ripping a DVD to toss on a laptop to take along on a trip with a dear friend (who works in film). This didn’t occur to me as being wrong, as the DVD was one that I own. But the crestfallen look I saw on my friend’s face made me realize that it’s all too easy to make copies of work and, even with not-bad intentions, for it to seep out into a weird demimonde where people endlessly download things they haven’t paid for. It’s a short throw from “let me rip this DVD for myself” to “you’d love this movie, I’ll make you a copy.” And from there, “I’ll trade you a copy for a copy of something you have (and I don’t really care where you got it).”

In this age of Netflix and iTunes, it’s even harder to justify such piracy. Depending on how much Netflix streaming you watch, you’re consuming movies for mere cents, and can access them any time. For most, all it takes is personally knowing any content creator–be it a graphic novelist, filmmaker, or visual artist–to become more responsible and better educated about the whole thing.

Then, of course, there is the gray area of ridiculousness called the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an organization that legally pursues “pirates”–including 12 year-olds. It was recently discovered that the RIAA’s own staff consumes a massive amount of bandwidth illegally downloading content, along with some of their chums at the Department of Homeland Security. Of course RIAA denied it (after all, who would want to fess up to downloading massive amounts of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Law and Order?), but the incident just served to illuminate how widespread the practice is, even amongst those who take a righteous position about it.

So then SOPA and PIPA. I would love to believe that they are somehow intended to afford legal or other protection to content creators whose work is being ripped off (something a bit more credible than RIAA’s brutal legal persecution of pre-teens). Upon researching the bills, however, it was quickly evident that:

  1. They were written by complete morons who have no understanding of technology or even the most basic workings of the internet;
  2. After whatever nincompoop or /s drafted the thing and conceived the totally stupid means by which intellectual property would be “protected” (the same methods, incidentally, that are employed by the Chinese government and various Middle Eastern potentates), corporate interests like the RIAA and others got involved and made the bills more convoluted and stupid yet also less effective; and
  3. Both bills had evolved into something quite other than protecting content creators from piracy, and turned instead into a means of giving organizations like the RIAA carte blanche to prosecute (without due process) anyone they chose to target. God forbid someone should post a picture of Rick Astley on Reddit or YouTube: if SOPA/PIPA were to pass, either site could be shut down, all their ad revenue seized, and traffic to their domains blocked (yet, laughably, users could still access their sites by typing in an IP address).

Yes. This is total BS.

As I’ve said, I’m against piracy, in a big way. Being a content creator and knowing many, some of whom struggle unbelievably yet continue creating their work in spite of a lack of commercial success, I have a position on whether it’s right or wrong to steal others’ work.

But the solution to piracy is not repressive laws or giving bumbling, ignorant government agencies technologically stupid mandates, from there to become even more the tools of corporate interests. SOPA/PIPA, as they’re written, would not protect me in any way, for example, if someone stole my work and put it up on PirateBay. It would, however, allow government agencies to cluelessly take down Twitter if someone dared to share a picture of someone holding a Kanye West poster over Instagram.

No, the solution to piracy is for our society to grow into the new means we have to share information. These days, anyone can become a content creator, so I really believe this can happen. It’s no surprise that laggard industries that cling ferociously to revenue models that made them billions (I’m looking at you, record industry, publishers, and movie studios) are big backers of SOPA. Like remorseless colonial governments, they shuffle about sheepishly when talking about the halcyon days of ruling the market and pretend they’ve joined us in the digital age. But in truth they miss being the gatekeepers and bristle at the idea that we are evolving a market in which someone like Amanda Hocking can become a phenomenon. The leash has slipped their grasp, and this is how they intend to get the dog back under control: with a taser.

Let me put it another way. The ultimate solution to the problem of murder is not devising new tortures for those who commit it and empowering governments with sweeping powers to punish in ever swifter and more horrific ways: it’s for society to evolve to a stage where it realizes, with as few exceptions as possible, that killing people is wrong, and that one shouldn’t do it. This is how justice is supposed to work–moving away from tyranny and toward greater social conscience, not the other way around.

Repression is never the answer to a problem, no matter how severe. There’s an Arthur C. Clarke quote (or several) that I could slip in here, but you get the point. SOPA is idiotic, and it makes me miserable and fearful that people who have no clue about how any of this works may have the power to censor the internet. It’s mind boggling.

So do your bit to get SOPA and PIPA off the table. There’s a tiny hope that the Beltway worthies who have assistants to print out their emails (you think I’m exaggerating?) and use phrases like “interweb” might realize that perhaps they should consult an expert or two, or risk looking even more foolish. Or, heaven forfend, lose votes and campaign funding.

I’ll give the whole system a bit of credit: I really do think this was mostly caused by stupidity and not by depravity, at least at first (though, of course, powerful lobbies and interests inevitably lurk near any pocket of ignorance within government, so they came quickly to the table with this one). But it’s encouraging to see that, as of this writing, ten lawmakers have, smartly, distanced themselves from the two bills.

And once you’ve signed a petition or contacted your senator or congressperson (unless, that is, you really want Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and, well, pretty much any site, application, or information system to go on the scrap heap), give the real issue a think. You could be a content creator in our new digital world. Chances are, you may already be one. You ought to be fairly paid for your work, just as you should not steal others’. That’s the real solution to piracy.

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