Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Darkness on the Internet

Today is Stop SOPA day, with sites like Wikipedia going dark in protest. Google isn't going dark, but it's got a doodle about it, so you know it's got to be at least as important as, say, Doraemon.

Please take a moment to sign a petition or contact your congressperson about SOPA and PIPA. This is a complicated issue and there are two sides to every argument, but as an internet user I feel SOPA is a horrible idea.

To understand why SOPA is a bad idea, consider this analogy. Let's say I call you up on your T-Mobile phone, and leave you a voicemail. (I'll use voicemail as an example because it's stored on T-Mobile's servers.) As part of my voicemail message, I play you a bit off my new Lady Gaga CD. (I have to use Lady Gaga as an example, because I work for Google. Long story.) Let's assume for the sake of argument that this is illegal. Who is at fault?

Am I at fault for playing the song? To the extent that playing it was illegal, I'd say yes. Absolutely, I'm at fault. Punish me.

Are you at fault for listening? You know what, I'll bite. Let's punish you, too--you should have hung up as soon as you realized there was unauthorized Gaga on the line.

Is T-Mobile at fault for storing my voicemeil? Think for a minute about what that means. How exactly was T-Mobile supposed to prevent this infringement? There's only one way: eavesdropping on every single voicemail that is ever left by anyone that uses their system.

Quite aside from the privacy concerns, this is a logistical nightmare. They'd have to have an army of people listening in on every conversation that anyone ever made, ready to flip a kill switch the moment they heard "Poker Face." And that's an easy example. What if the infringement involved someone less famous, like Elvis Hitler or Toad the Wet Sprocket? What if I am Elvis Hitler, and I'm playing you a track from my long-awaited followup to "Disgraceland?" There's going to be a lot of judgment calls, and a lot of eavesdropping. 

Now let's talk about punishment. In this analogy, SOPA would not only require T-Mobile to do the eavesdropping and make the judgment calls. It would also allow any entertainment company to shut off T-Mobile completely just on the allegation that infringement occurred. Until it proved itself innocent, T-Mobile would be unable to connect to the U.S. telephone system or use U.S. airwaves. (In this analogy I'm granting the government miraculous powers over the electromagnetic spectrum--which, if you think about it, is not much more far-fetched than the miraculous powers it would need to have in order to actually enforce SOPA the way Congress apparently thinks it can.)

Think about that for a minute: an entire company put on hold on the basis of an allegation by some media multinational. Millions of employees out of work. Tens of millions of customers who can no longer communicate. All in the name of stopping infringment. 

Replace "T-Mobile" with "YouTube," "Facebook," or "Google" and that's SOPA.

Listen, I don't want to come across as a big leftie here, but here in America we don't shut companies down even when we have solid proof that they are killing people. Now we're talking about shutting down Internet businesses not because they did something wrong, and not even because we have proof of wrongdoing, but because some entertainment company alleged that that one of that company's customers did something that might be wrong.

And don't even get me started on the actual enforcement clauses, which would empower our government to set up its own Great Firewall. I don't want to sound like Glenn Beck, but folks, this is how liberty ends. Ask a Chinese friend what the Great Firewall is for. Unless they're really dialed into politics, chances are they'll tell you it's to keep out porn and terrorists. We in the West think we'd never stifle political dissent, but we'll do it in a heartbeat if instead of calling it "dissent" you call it "terrorism" or "indecency" or "infringement."

Whatever you think about copyright law, SOPA is not the right way to enforce it. Even if the entertainment industry is right (newsflash: they're not) and a lack of SOPA would cause the entertainment industry to wither up and die, would we really censor the entire Internet in order to keep those Jerry Bruckheimer movies coming every summer? Ben Franklin derided those who would trade liberty for safety. What would he think of those who ask us to trade essential liberties for continued access to mindless entertainment?

So please, contact your congressperson. Wikipedia has a search tool to help you. Don't copy a form letter, write something short and succint and from the heart. Even if it's just a few words, write something. If you're an avid Internet user, SOPA is literally an attack on your way of life. Help put a stop to it.