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Friday
Jan202012

Internet Blackout

If you’ve been paying attention to the internet, you probably noticed that a wide swath of website users and owners were none-too-pleased at the proposal of the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (from the US Senate and House of Representatives, respectively).  This led to a coordinated website strike and mobilization campaign last Wednesday.

There’s a great technical analysis of the problems with the bill on the Reddit blog here.  But I think the best analysis of the issue I’ve seen comes from this TED Talk given by Clay Shirky:

His central point is that SOPA and PIPA represent the latest in a trend in entertainment industry lobbying, away from getting Congress to define the distinction between legal and illegal copying (producing, for example, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992), towards restricting copying through technical means and making it illegal to work around those “protections”.  The DMCA lets companies sell you “broken” (for the purpose of restricting copying) devices and makes it illegal for you to fix those devices.  PIPA and SOPA let the government (at the behest of the entertainment industry) break DNS to censor “pirate” sites, and would make it illegal to work around that (which requires search engines and the like to pay to police themselves so that they aren’t indiscriminately helping users find such things).

Cory Doctorow describes this trend towards technological control systems backed by force of law (and away from legislation about what sorts of things should or shouldn’t be legal, with restrictions on liberty sitting on the other side of due process) in a recent essay titled Lockdown: The Coming War on General Purpose Computing.

The bills have been defeated for now, and in the aftermath, many activists have pointed out that similar legislation will undoubtedly reemerge (under the same name, a new name, or grafted wholesale into something politically inconvenient for legislators to oppose).  But after watching Shirky and reading Doctorow, I’m convinced it’s not sufficient to oppose, whack-a-mole-style, the latest bit of oppressive-technology-backed-by-force-of-law that comes up.  It’s necessary to oppose the idea that companies should be allowed to sell computers that can work against their users in ways that the users are prohibited from fixing.  And it’s necessary to move the copyright debate back to what sorts of copying should or shouldn’t be allowed, regardless of what sorts of copyright law the entertainment industry might be willing to buy or sell.

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