Yesterday, in protest at draft US laws that would harm the Internet ostensibly to fight digital content piracy, websites including Wikipedia, Flickr, BoingBoing and many thousands more went voluntarily dark. Crooked Timber was proud to be one of them.
Why should a global blog care about American legislation?
For all the talk of the unintended consequences of SOPA’s anti-piracy measures, it is no accident that Crooked Timber could one day end up as collateral damage of this legislation. SOPA/PIPA are the latest in a long line of laws that seek to externalize the enforcement costs of a beleaguered business model.
We could lose our domain name and more, and with no effective recourse, simply because a commenter posts a link to allegedly pirated content. Or because a touchy content owner doesn’t like us linking to them, and doesn’t like what we write. I say these unintended consequences are not accidental because to the intellectual property zealots who privately draft our public laws, Crooked Timber would simply be an acceptable level of road-kill. Funny how ‘tough choices’ are bad things that are done to other people, eh?
More broadly, you should care because SOPA/PIPA are explicitly extra-territorial. SOPA degrades the domain name system in ways that have been repeatedly and explicitly spelt out to US politicians by Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf, two of the guys who invented
the DNS the Internet. They were ignored.
(Somehow, it’s ok for law-makers to screw up part of the critical infrastructure while cheerfully admitting they have no clue how it works. Think how that would go down with, say, healthcare or the economy. I know most of them have no clue, but can you imagine them announcing that to a hearing and everyone laughing sympathetically? Yes? Welcome to my world.)
Also extra-territorially, PIPA messes with search results outside the US. And under SOPA, domain names of non-US sites but registered with US registrars could be seized even more easily and without reasonable or timely appeal. There are many, many ways to get screwed by this, even if you don’t live/vote/spend in America.
These are not bugs. They are features. The aim of SOPA and similar laws is to eliminate barriers to the fast and cheap enforcement of private property rights. Abuse is already rife of the currently allowed punitive actions that do not follow due process or include similarly quick and effective channels of appeal. (See notice and takedown under the DMCA, or Whois just about anywhere.) This legislation was created for one narrow commercial interest group out of a whole ecosystem. None of its effects are unintended.
You need to care about this because the infection is spreading to where you live.
Alongside the State Department’s pronouncements on ‘democracy brought to you by Twitter’, and exhortations to other countries to stop blocking the Internet, the US is actually better known abroad for another export: intellectual property maximalism by force.
Via wildly asymmetrical bi-lateral trade agreements, America bullies Australia’s public health system to pay over the odds to US Big Pharma, and threatens to blacklist Spain for not passing laws written by the US film industry. SOPA/PIPA may sound so crazily over the top that they’ll never work anywhere else. Just see how high that one flies the next time the USTR visits your capital city.
But there is hope. Hell, there may even be some common sense.
Finally, the Internet works
The SOPA/PIPA moment is a turning point. Thanks to Wikipedia, this supposedly arcane Internet policy issue has been on every BBC TV and radio bulletin I’ve caught in the past 24 hours. It is mainstream news around the English-speaking world.
(Incidentally, some of the media exchanges are pure comedy gold, as Big Content employees interview each other, trying to be fair-minded but genuinely perplexed that any of this is an issue. BBC Radio 4 interviewer to a Telegraph commentator: “But how can anyone except pirates be against anti-piracy? Surely everyone is in favour of this law, except, of course, for its unintended consequences..?”)
You could see this turning point in neoclassical terms:
•Rent-seekers and gate-keepers coordinate to externalize their costs onto the public and hobble new market entrants, via lawmakers delighted to accept ‘free’ money.
•Citizens face collective action problems in finding out about and stopping it.
•The Internet saves itself at the last minute by reducing the barriers to information
and advocacy, and making it too costly for politicians to stay ignorant and happy.
•Oh, and the whole technology industry also rides in on a larger-than-expected white horse, followed by, possibly, the White House Blackberry User in Chief.
Or you could tell it as the story of the moment people realised the Internet is about more than porn.
Either way, the time is long gone when dreamers could believe the Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it. The Internet is simply an elegant set of chokepoints being squeezed by anyone who can get their hands around one. The time has come to pick a side.
Movements are formed in moments such as this one. Changes in behavior flow from changes in ideas, and from evolving beliefs about what can be done.
Now, I’m not going to go all Holy Jebus on you, and I realize there are many, many issues we should all throw our weight and our pennies at. But Crooked Timber is a blog, and it depends on a functioning, open Internet. So I ask readers to think about what steps you might take to help prevent foolish, frightened or greedy people from getting themselves lathered up and breaking the Internet all over again.
We’ve already linked to EFF’s SOPA page. If you live outside the US and want to make a difference in what is still a lopsided debate, consider joining or donating to the following organisations:
UK: Open Rights Group (Disclosure: I have recently joined its Board of Directors)
Ireland: Digital Rights Ireland
Europe: European Digital Rights (EDRI), a Brussels umbrella group run by the redoubtable Joe McNamee. Their list of member organisations is also a good source of like-minded orgs.
Feel free to suggest other Internet rights groups below.
- All of us at Crooked Timber agreed/acquiesced to going dark for a day to protest at SOPA/PIPA, for what I imagine are similar reasons. This post, however, represents my own views. Big thanks to Kieran for organizing a URL re-direct at very short notice.