Hey, you! You enjoy using the Internet, right?
If you’re like me, you keep up with protests in Tahir Square, Syria and Occupy Wall Street on Twitter, you watch YouTube videos from Russia and keep up with friends around the world over Facebook. The Internet is a beautiful thing for two reasons: it’s open and it’s global.
What’s the problem? The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act, two sister bills being debated in the U.S. Congress, could end the global Web as we know it and love it.
SOPA would give the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright owners the ability to seek injunctions against offending websites, regardless of where they’re hosted. This could mean removing the site in question from search engine indexes or ordering American ISPs to stop DNS servers from doing what they’re supposed to do, which is translate a text web address (i.e. “www.google.com”) to the corresponding IP address (i.e. 126.96.36.199). It’s the IP address that your browser actually uses to connect you to the website you’d like to visit.
What’s the problem with that tactic, you ask?
The structure of the web is based on the DNS system. By interfering with that system on a large scale, the infrastructure of the Web is at risk of compartmentalization. That would have disastrous consequences for the speed and accessibility of the Internet for users worldwide. The targets of SOPA would find ways to circumvent this, and the rest of us would be left to suffer.
The bill would require American-based web services to monitor everything users upload and check for copyright infringement. Failure to do so could result in the service being held liable for any violations. This would strangle free speech and innovation on the Internet.
If the potential creators of new web services and their would-be investors are capable of being held legally responsible for users’ uploads, they may not be able to create the product they’d like to introduce. Silicon Valley is one of the few hotspots of today’s American economy, and stifling the amount of creativity and level of investment found there would have disastrous consequences including job losses and the overseas flight of innovative people and companies.
If the U.S. government decides a foreign website is hosting protected content and blocks Americans from accessing it, there’s nothing to stop the host nation of that site from responding in kind. Such fragmentation of the Web would be disastrous for a network that, by nature, doesn’t fit well with geographic borders.
It also sets an awful international norm. The U.S. has consistently criticized other nations like China, Iran and Syria for censoring the Internet for their citizens. The censorship methods used by those countries are very similar to the mechanisms SOPA allows. If the U.S. begins censoring the web for American users, it could no longer justifiably accuse other nations of violating the principles of an open Internet.
Why, then, is SOPA even being considered?
The bill has been lobbied for by the American entertainment industry as means to combat online piracy. This 6-minute YouTube video produced by media conglomerate Viacom sums up the pro-SOPA argument:
Pirated intellectual property is a real problem, and deserves a solution. But these arguments are ridiculous. The video is laden with false assumptions and bad economics.
Viacom claims that every illegally downloaded video represents a loss from their profit margin. That’s false. If Jack Smith refuses to pay $30 for a copy of Star Trek on Blu-Ray, he has two options: Do nothing and go without, or pirate it. If he pirates it, that’s not a true loss of profit for Viacom because Jack wasn’t going to buy Star Trek at their $30 price point anyway.
And what if Jack lives in an area of the world where the content he’d like to stream is blocked on services like Hulu? Jack wants to do this legally, but with no option to do so, he’s out of luck and he’s turning to torrents to see the latest Colbert Report when and where he’d like to, on whichever device he pleases to use.
The “Stealing a $30,000 car is a felony, why is it socially acceptable to steal a $30 million movie?” question is hogwash. Each copy of a movie does not cost $30 million.
Viacom’s smartly trying to strike a nerve with average Americans by claiming workers’ pay is at risk. The hypocrisy is astounding. Viacom’s 2011 net profits enjoyed a 200% jump from the previous quarter. Viacom’s CEO, Phillippe Dauman, received $84.5 million last year, setting an American record for the largest compensation package in the corporate world. Viacom’s doing just fine, and so are the other major media outlets. If these conglomerates are suddenly so concerned with the “average worker,” why not spread that wealth around a little bit?
Pro-SOPA media outlets and interest groups are trying to pass this legislation because they haven’t been able to adapt to the new model of consumption. They’re still trying to sell region-specific, DRM-protected goods at high prices. They don’t make their content accessible, and they’re punished for it by the consumers who choose to pirate their goods. Instead of finding some entrepreneurial spirit and adapting to the new model, they’re trying to get the entire Internet rebuilt to conform to their old school business plan.
This form of piracy is the marketplace telling media corporations that they’ve done a bad job of setting a price and modernizing their distribution system. Most media pirating is best understood as a business failure on the part of the distributor. By setting the price of their products too high and insisting on excessive controls on distribution, these companies are creating a parallel market where their goods can be acquired for free.
The best path for media outlets dealing with digital piracy is to realize their old business model just doesn’t work anymore and modernize their distribution methods. By attempting to run roughshod over the free and open structure of the Internet, SOPA and its proponents threaten to ruin everything we love about the global Web.
But hey, remember kids, don’t copy that floppy!