It’s fighting time again, it seems, and everyone’s affected.
I didn’t know if I was going to write a blog post about SOPA and PIPA. I’m not a citizen of the United States, so obviously I cannot make much difference on their laws personally. I can just stay here, be grumpy and whine about whatever craziness they cook up next, and give voiceless support to the sane people who are fighting the good fight.
And it’s obviously a good thing that there are sane people who are fighting the good fight. That’s what democracy is about.
But these recent actions have made me question just what democracy is, and how it should manifest itself.
The Obligatory SOPA rant
First, here’s a brief explanation of what SOPA and PIPA are, just for historical reference. In today’s digital world, copyright infringements take three people to happen: 1) the copyright holder, who creates the content, 2) the copyright infringer, who posts the copyrighted content somewhere without a permission, and 3) the host, where the content is actually posted. These laws would shift the blame for copyright infringements to the hosts of said content, not the individual users who commit the acts of copyright infringement. Nowadays, we have the sane approach to copyright infringements, where the copyright holders have to conduct meticulous investigations, act considerate and professional and actually work with the hosts of user-generated content in all peace and tranquility. There’s an unwritten agreement that the hosts are just doing their work, set the standards for conduct on their own sites, are not presumed to agree with any unlawfulness going on in their site and will work with the copyright holders to remove all infringing content. The new laws would make the hosts equally culpable and would easily swamp them with takedown requests - which, of course, would mean that the hosts who can’t afford an army of lawyers would be forced out of existence.
The Internet was pretty much built around the idea that the technology is neutral. The socio-political structure of the modern-day Web was built around the idea that everyone can host content on the web, and that individuals acts as individuals. These individuals depend on their ability to work with the neutral hosts, who do not need to pass judgment on what content they host, unless there’s clear evidence that the work is there illegally.
Even in best-case scenario, the new laws would require the hosts to pre-screen all content, filtered through the army of lawyers. Who, by the way, are just human beings and still can’t catch everything.
And here’s a few free hints why this is stupid: we have several hosts of user-generated content out there. As surprising it is, people do not actually use them solely for copyright infringement. For example, you’d think that people would only use a free video host like YouTube to post clips of copyrighted TV shows and films, but no - people are actually whipping out their own video cameras and posting their own stuff, too. Not only that, but they’re producing stuff that people actually give damn about.
It may come as a huge shock to the Big Media people, but the fact is that the user community isn’t as stupid and as uncreative as they think it is. Whatever notions of “conventional” psychology they had has to be thrown out. They were wrong in their assumptions, plain and simple.
In face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they cannot give us a blanket statement along the lines of “all YouTube users are unoriginal, uncreative, brainless content thieves, until painfully and costly proven otherwise, and we have to make YouTube responsible for screening the content.”
The fact that original content not only exists on YouTube, and actually thrives there, is a big chink in this law’s defence.
The fact that such original content may be submitted safely and easily to YouTube right now, in just a few minutes, without any lawyer involvement either now or forevermore, is another big chink in this law’s defence.
Does copyright infrinmenet happen on YouTube? Sure. But YouTube already has a process for that - which incidentally has notions like the possibility that errors could happen and someone might even make mistakes. The new laws would definitely increase the speed such infractions would be handled - because the content host would need to cave in to a flood of requests.
They’d have no room for a process that would ensure fair, just treatment of individual users. Heck, YouTube already has similar process going on where they allow media companies to delete whatever content they want, and it’s plain and obvious that the media companies just don’t care if they’re right or wrong in their identifications - they want any suspicious stuff gone, no matter how and when (or if) it’s used.
Sorry, I think it’s time to insert the inevitable bit of ridiculous hyperbole: A couple of centuries hence, the media industry will be hanging every copyright infringer with same amount of rope, to ensure expediency and speed in face of the widespread threat posed by copyright infringers everywhere. People will still remember the time when people condemned to death by hanging used to get rope lengths chosen by body weight to ensure instant death, but that was rejected because that would have required the media industry folks to consider the copyright infringers as people with individual - dare we say even human - traits, like body weight.
Yes, it is hyperbole, but I still would like to remind people that even in places where capital punishment is used, the legislators still somehow get irked by the whole thing and remember that the vile criminals still have actual rights. Because there was a time when people took flimsy blanket approach to the whole thing and just marched people who fit certain vague criteria to gas chambers, completely forgetting the inherent humanity of all involved. (Sorry, I had to do the inevitable Nazi comparison, too, to cover all bases.)
But the point stands: everyone has rights. Our current system ensures that while the objections can be raised, the infringer’s deeds have to be reviewed. The proposed system says that the copyright holder’s temper tantrums have more weight than whether or not the infringer actually did the deed or not.
It tilts the whole system in favour of presumption of guilt.
And last I checked, presumption of guilt was one of those bad things uncivilised, undemocratic countries did.
On Websites and Activism
My head hurts, I haven’t eaten anything today, it’s 20:26 as I write this and I have to try to make this article available before January 18th. Because on January 18th, almost every website I post on will black out in protest of SOPA and PIPA. These include at least Reddit, identi.ca and English Wikipedia.
I feel a little bit weird about Wikipedia’s blackout, but after thinking it through, I have to respect the community’s decision to stand with the blackout.
When I first thought about it, my first reaction was that Wikipedia should stay neutral on the matter and take no part in politics. There are bigger implications, of course: if we allow non-profit organisations to affect politics, how is this different from political activism from companies (nicer way of saying “goddamn corruption”)?
How is it different indeed?
I think one look at the voting page was enough.
At least Wikipedia had the voting page.
If a company decides to pay up campaign fees of a politician and we suddenly get political statements that happen to be in line with the said company’s policies, that’s corruption. It was one vote that had much more influence than the other votes.
This fight is about organising indiduals - Wikipedia’s users - into a coherent whole, to direct their will into action. Wikipedia’s user base wants the blackout. Wikipedia’s user base wants everyone to know of the implications of this law, with a straightfoward example.
This is multiple votes being directed to inform people and multiply the votes even further. And no money is changing hands, here. The weapon to change the legislation is information, not money. The weapon to change the legislation is the will of Wikipedia’s user base, not money.
This is democracy for you. Wikipedia is doing its job, informing people of things its user base is rightfully concerned about. It may be a politically loaded message, but in this case, it has to be. SOPA/PIPA threatens Wikipedia’s existence - and it threatens the existence of all sites with user-created content. The Foundation made its points clear: Wikipedia’s existence grows increasingly tough if legislations like this are in effect.
The discussion is also remarkably transparent. No one is acting in shadows. We’re coming forward as individual users to say that we can’t be just thrown around.
…and that’s enough of a rant I’m going to post today. I’m going to have a late lunch before my head explodes.