I imagine most of you reading this have a blog or your own little website, a place where you’ve invested your own time and energy to carve out your own little corner of the web. You’ve probably bought your own domain name, or have a cool name on tumblr and you’re quite proud of it. Imagine that you’re wrapping up the year and you’ve written a list of your favourite songs of the past year. Imagine then that someone in the comments on the blog posts a link to one of those songs, a place where someone else can download it. Under the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (And Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act), you are liable for that content being posted and you can have your domain name seized and have your site blocked from major search engines. All for one little comment. There’s a fantastic infographic here that goes into how this system works.
Now you might be wondering why I’m more than a little bit worried and more than a little bit upset about this bill as it’s one that would seemingly only affect American web users. Think about how many different web services that you use reside in or were created in the United States? Tumblr, the site that this post is on is hosted in the US. If a single person posts an image to tumblr that they do not hold the copyright for, under the provisions of this bill, the entire tumblr site could be taken down. Tumblr may remove the ability to post links and images altogether in order to remove potential avenues for liabilities under the regime. Imagine Twitter without all of the millions of links that go flying around each day and all of the millions of photos that brighten our days. All it takes is one complaint that can potentially lead to serious ramifications for web businesses.
As the infographic outlines, that’s just the thin edge of the wedge, imagine some of the great startups like youtube, facebook and path if they were created after this odious bill had passed? They’d be either bankrupt or a fraction of what they are today, because they are places where people freely share content, ideas and links. Facebook is great not just because it has your ostensible friends on it but because you can share links, pictures and concepts with people. It becomes a place where you can share the things that bring you joy. Imagine how those sites would be if you couldn’t post photos, videos or links, at all. Imagine how dull and boring the internet would be if everything had to be pre-vetted before it could be shared just to assuage the dying business model of a few immoral media companies.
The reason that it’s even more worrying is that this legislation is a template, a beta test if you will for the real thing, a world wide similar ‘anti-counterfeiting’ treaty that is actually nothing less than internet censorship. There was quite an uproar by internet freedom advocates when the ACTA was gleefully signed in 2011 and the provisions in that agreement are a fraction of what will be pushed in future agreements if SOPA passes. You can guarantee the luddites we have in governments all over the world will gleefully sign away the greatest power of one of the greatest inventions of human kind if spoken to sweetly enough. So much unrealised potential will be quashed as inventors, makers and creators shy away from the current medium out of fear of prosecution or worse under the draconian provisions of the bill.
There is current talk among some of the biggest websites on the internet, including Google, Facebook, Reddit, Youtube and others (Even Pornhub) of having a worldwide blackout day in protest of SOPA. Each of those sites will be inaccessible during that day and will present information as to why they are inaccessible. Sure, it will inconvenience a fair few people, but what better way to get the attention of several billion people that the internet, and the hard won freedoms we have on it, are not subject to the grotesque, lovecraftian, crony, regulatory capture that has so entombed the main pillars of the ‘content creation’ industry. In a world where bits can be seamlessly replicated without loss, the concept of enforcing the ownership of a certain order of ones and zeroes requires as onerous a regulatory regime as we’re seeing in SOPA. Realistically this is the only way to preserve the business model and the current status quo of these media companies. It is a truly cynical take on letting “A hundred flowers blossom”, protecting a dying species of tulip by burning all other plant life for a 100km radius.
The internet is the best thing we have. This is the pinnacle of so much talent and so much genius standing shoulder upon shoulder. It is truly awe-inspiring that one of the greatest inventions of human creativity came directly out of the need for a robust way of communicating that was so far-fetched from what had come before it that even to this day its makeup is still quite poorly understood by so many people. To give those who claim to be the gatekeepers of true innovation and true creation carte blanche over what we, the denizens of the internet, can say and do and create is selling short a triumph of humanity. So many words will go unwritten, so many thoughts will go unthought, so much joy will go unfelt. Those who see only the pseudo-anarchy of the internet instead of the relationships, connections, creativity, beauty and freedom that it enables each and every one of us are missing out on the greatest period of history we have experienced so far. The internet, to those who wish to keep such a tight grip on the creativity of the human race that they risk asphyxiating it, is simply pearls before swine.