Unless by some freak of quantum physics time happened to pass by so slowly I got stuck in 1984 (a year before I was born), my computer clock tells me it’s 2012.
SOPA, It’s Not The Singular Form of Sopas (Soup)
On Twitter, that bastion of intelligible, succinct free speech, I have bemoaned the seeming ignorance and indifference of Filipinos in general to political and legal movements related to Information Technology. A handful of the hardcore tech bloggers have been aware of such issues, but local media did not start covering SOPA until the Wikipedia blackout plan spread like wildfire. A handful of Twitter denizens in my network shared my sentiments (and gave me the section title). Facebook friends have posted links but have offered little in the way of intelligent discussion, although perhaps that is an indication of the general dumbness scourge of that site.
I have read only one Pinoy-written commentary about how SOPA (and PIPA) affects Filipinos, and it neatly presents the implications in understandable language, but leaves those hungering for more technical details a bit dry. Experts in law and technology have voiced their concerns, but are the implications being understood enough in general?
Being a coding geek with a modicum of legal knowledge (yes, IANAL), I feel strongly about such “pet causes” like free speech, privacy, IT security, digital copyright, Internet openness and free software. You may have read my previous post about my efforts to explain and use Creative Commons, and my willingness to share my code and link to free software tools. A couple of other “pet causes” include sex-positive feminism, a secular society, educational technology, scientific thought, and the elevation of metal as thinking person’s music. Laziness has prevented me from posting comprehensively about them.
The general outpouring of fuzzy warm rainbows of support from the Internet for opponents of SOPA and PIPA, however, have convinced me to get off my arse fattened by hours of sedentary feasting on what the cornucopia of websites out there have to offer: pictures of cats with misspelled captions, owls, foxes, and inane public Facebook fights. It is time to fight for our right to enjoy what the best and the worst of the Intarwebz have to offer. Imagine, the entire humorous concept of rick rolling would be broken if Rick Astley’s goose-stepping copyright minders managed to lobby these bills to passage and implementation.
In support of SOPA and PIPA protests I have decided to display a ribbon at the upper right corner of my WordPress.com blog with the text “Stop Censorship”. Thankfully, WordPress is an opponent of SOPA and PIPA, and has offered bloggers an easy option to express their disagreement with the two bills: a simple Dashboard setting tweak to choose among hardcore total blackout, minimalist protest ribbon display, or callow indifference. The total blackout wasn’t even considered as an option because: first, my traffic is so negligible my website is in effect suffering under an involuntary blackout; and second, I wanted to put up this blog post to rant and hopefully inform (in that order).
Adunaphel’s Regurgitated Background to Piracy Law, Yarrrr!
Now, you might say, it’s a laudable action to prevent unauthorized stealing of the ideas and content that people make money from. Indeed it is, but the existing copyright laws are so awfully restrictive and absurd so as to stifle innovation and creativity. The law has yet to find a comfortable balance between protecting the money-generating idea (the core of the capitalist credo) and sharing that idea so that more people can generate money, or otherwise just pollute the Web with fan-made monstrosities. In the meantime, huge corporations spend on campaigns that conflate piracy with theft, prevent the flourishing of copying technology from the VCR to the DVR, generate inflated numbers on lost income, and hypocritically ignoring their pirate origins. Finding new business models that coexist with technology and give due income to artists and content creators be damned.
Only now are classic written works by American authors being made available into the public domain.
The average self-absorbed teenager (regardless of race or country) who dreams of his 15-seconds of YouTube fame might see them crushed when the big bad RIAA takes down the ENTIRE site for his ill-advised use of Kanye West as a soundtrack to his angsty musings.
Restrictions (the reviled Digital Rights Management, or DRM) built into music downloads and CDs prevent listeners from making backups of content they paid for. And when a company that runs the DRM server goes tits-up, there goes your music. Locked.
Even so, current US law as exemplified by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides instruments where copyright holders (not just the big bad MPAA and RIAA, you could be Stephenie Meyer, which is worse) can ask sites to “take down” infringing content. This seems reasonable enough, as there are two main concepts that protect the pirate’s, er, citizen’s rights: that of fair use and safe harbor. Fair use means that certain types of usage (news reporting, research, education, criticism) of text, photos and other copyrighted material do not need permission from the rights holders. AFAIK, in US copyright law, violations of fair use are not determined by how much (e.g. how many words you lifted, how many minutes of video or audio you cut) of the original material you use, but the context of usage.
Safe harbor, on the other hand, is what keeps Page and Brin from being hauled in front of a judge. It means that websites, Internet Service Providers, and other conduits should not be held liable for infringing content posted by their users/customers, provided that they institute mechanisms to help copyright owners flag what they deem as violations of their copyright. Thus the vaunted DMCA takedown (or the void of Internet sadness that you feel when a music video you previously linked to is now blacked out).
Sadly, I am not familiar with Philippine copyright law, except that I find it unnecessarily draconian to prevent struggling students from photocopying n chapters of a needlessly expensive textbook, especially when public libraries are at a premium around here. I however welcome suggestions and assistance from experts (if I am to start my dream advocacy).
SOPA At a Glance
To start the day right, for those who have the ability to comprehend legalese covering about 80 pages, read the complete text of SOPA at OpenCongress. Unknown to many Internet users, a proposed amendment to SOPA was released in December 12, 2011 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), main sponsor of the bill. The text can be read here.
These nefarious siblings, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) are two controversial bills created to solve the insidious scourge of copyright infringement, championed by torrent sites and bit lockers and YouTube. Naturally, the bullies who stand to benefit from intractable copyright laws, such as the music and film industries, are pushing for the passage of these laws, to the consternation of big tech companies and Internet commenters all over the world. SOPA (as of the time of writing) is being debated in the US House of Representatives, and PIPA is set to be voted upon by the US Senate on January 24.
What does the DMCA lack that SOPA and PIPA aim to shore up? Unlimited bullying power for Big Bad Media, that is. Not content with suing grannies for torrents their underage grandkiddies downloaded on their PCs, they are now angling to take the fight where the money is: right in Big Tech’s turf. The same fear-mongers who sued Google for linking (fucking l-i-n-k-i-n-g) to websites would like to bring those scurvy pirates to their heels. With the DMCA, they need to submit to something as nefarious as due process, and powers of prosecution against businesses and websites outside US jurisdiction are present, but not in the obscene quantities that they like.
SOPA is simply starving the beast.
Instead of following those troublesome DMCA procedures, they aim to put the onus of responsibility on those who are indirectly involved.
With the simple dastardly threat of a lawyerly email, an entire site can be shut down over one instance of infringing content uploaded by a user (doesn’t have to be a US citizen). And that’s basically a preemptive shutdown, without even the courtesy of a court order. Shutdown in the DMCA context might mean seizure of servers and other property, or, more importantly, domain name seizure. But SOPA aims to go beyond that (the original version, explicitly, anyway) by ordering US-based (means a lot of entities) DNS providers to act as if the site did not exist at all. And even with that heavy-handed measure, tech-savvy users will be forced to use foreign DNS providers (not all of them legit) to access a delisted site.
Sources of funding, such as from banks or PayPal, will be cut off. Websites that host content, such as social networking sites, will be forced to use irrational amounts of resources to police their users from posting even potentially infringing links, out of fear of shutdown. For startups, the risk of censure will be too great compared to the advantages. Even search engines, news websites, and effin’ blogs will be forced to remove links to these evil, evil websites. Imagine the logistics of THAT! It’s another prime example of reactionary, lobby-fund greased lawmakers pleasing Big Business without thinking things through.
And us, as plain Internet denizens deprived of our human right to TwitPic, will feel our social world cave in as our free (albeit dumb) speech is bludgeoned by a law made a million miles away.
The global nature of the Internet is inherently bipolar: all humans of various sensibilities and sizes love their bytes and bits, but the reality of the Internet, the nuts and bolts of it, rests in the hands of leading US tech companies. I don’t see a viable local alternative to Facebook emerging in the few months after the passage of SOPA. With the penchant of US government for exporting American democracy and other ills to the rest of the world, it is inevitable that the Philippines and other countries might think a SOPA-like law attractive. In a country where journalists are treated as clay pigeons at a cowboy shootout, free speech advocates and celebutards tweeting hashtags don’t count for much.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
For a more coherent primer to copyright law, please visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) websites. Various explainer articles from both reputable and churnalism sites are making the rounds, but nothing beats getting lost in an in-depth explanation.
It might seem romantically anarchist, but the appeal of the Internet is the veneer of lawlessness and freedom it offers. The last bastion of free speech (intelligent, sexual, bigoted, violent, atheist, colorful, bone-headed) doesn’t brook meddling from any one entity that seeks to control it.
The nature of creativity will be forever changed by technology. What if mere seeing could enable the cloud-connected augmented human mind from uploading copies of movies seen, music heard, into virtual databanks shared among friends? Will the law criminalize using our five senses? Advances such as the 3D printer will soon enable us to download models from Pirate Bay and print out our own sneakers. Visions like these were the stuff of science fiction decades ago, but the dystopian intertwining of copyright and greed overshadow these scientific achievements.
What we need is awareness and vigilance: to push for laws that understand the technology, and understand how people interact and live with technology, for the benefit of all.