With apologies, again, for delays. Enjoy this picture of subzero skiing as compensation/explanation for my prolonged absence.
How gratifying to see democracy work as well as it has during the SOPA debate. A cadre of lobbyists devise a plan to protect their interests inimical to both the people, and to the larger society; the people fight back; and with alarming alacrity, at a rate comparable to Republicans abandoning Mitt Romney, the lobbyists’ pet representatives jump ship. This is how it’s supposed to work!
For late-comers, the Stop Online Piracy Act is a bill introduced by the lovable Lamar Smith (R-TX), putatively drafted to end commercialized piracy of American intellectual property, especially by overseas actors (like China). This much of the goal is laudable, and drew presidential approval during Obama’s recent State of the Union Address. But SOPA’s mechanism obliterates the safe-harbor provided by the DCMA (the Act that allowed my old firm to successfully defend YouTube’s continued existence, against the assault of Viacom and other content providers), and contemplates a world where content providers may, by simply lodging a protest, see any site that hosts allegedly stolen content shut down without a hearing or chance of reply. Under extreme interpretations of the bill, as originally drafted, this site could be shuttered, in full, on the basis of a copyright complaint about any picture used here without permission. Like the above.
By this late hour, the threat appears at an end, with the Obama administration issuing a thinly-veiled veto threat. But in retrospect, I urge you to look at SOPA as part of a larger narrative, and one liberals (or progressives, if you prefer) blissfully appear to be making some headway. During the darkest depths of the Bush administration, more than a few commentators drew on Ben Franklin’s famous exhortation:
Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
As a watchword for those worried about the nation’s slow slide into a police state. Freedom, the theory goes, involves risk, but it’s well worth the reward. A free society, which we declare ourselves to be, prefers to allow some chinks in our national security armor rather than to close them all at the price of our liberty of movement, conversation, and discussion.
SOPA presents an identical issue. We’ve come to value the internet as a place for free and unbridled conversation, which knits us closer together and enriches each individual’s cultural experience. The price of that liberty, though, is the continual risk of piracy, and the concomitant loss of profit that entails for content providers. By placing the burden of proof to establish piracy and shut down an offending site on content-owners, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act chose to deflect error towards freedom of expression, rather than airtight protection of intellectual property. SOPA proposed the reverse solution, and failed, to the benefit of all. It’s tempting to view individual skirmishes in the broader political landscape as isolated incidents, but to the extent the defeat of SOPA favors liberty over restraint, it inures to the benefit of the larger society.