So, most of the people who come to this blog are writers — in the parlance of people who create nothing but billing fictions, “creators of content”. Many people in our shoes are worried about piracy; about people taking copies of our stories and other work, and making them available for free without our permission (maybe without alterations, maybe with).
And make no mistake, this is a problem. As writers, we have the right to choose how and whether our work is distributed, and to make contracts with others to distribute it. Copyright is a grand bargain — nobody has the right to our work except us, until long after we’re dead, at which point it belongs to everyone without hindrance. Pirates rob us of our moral and legal rights, and they depress the market for our work. We ask people to respect our rights in no small part because we write stuff that’s worth preserving.
The thing is, the Internet is worth preserving, too. It’s one of the best things that our society has ever built, and people are using it to spread knowledge, freedom, and happiness across the globe. It has made life measurably better for millions, going on billions, of people. Yeah, it has its flaws, mostly the result of selfish and nasty people trying to score points or making a quick buck, but on balance the Internet and the Web are good things. I have very little patience for people who want to tear it down for their own selfish ends, nor for those who want to reserve the right to arbitrate what can or can’t be here — because that’s basically the same thing.
My day job is in network security. I do research into making the Internet more secure, and I write software that supports the folks who do the day-to-day work. In other words, as an author I have a stake in this game, and as a techie I have the knowledge and experience to judge proposed fixes. On both of those bases, I am firmly against SOPA.
I oppose it for two basic reasons: First, it’s not going to do a damn thing about piracy. Most of the Internet is out of the control of the US, and most of it is in English. Consider the spotty success of the famed “Great Firewall of China” — a more draconian, hands-on approach to the problem of limiting the ingress of “undesired” information. It leaks like a sieve, despite the fact that they’re putting much more manpower on it, are allowed to block “just in case”, and are mostly dealing with the smaller part of the Internet that’s written in Chinese. In other words, they’re throwing much more effort at a much easier problem, and still having limited success.
Nobody (well, almost nobody) in the SOPA fight claims to want a Great Firewall for the United States… but it would take that much or more in order to “solve” the piracy problem they claim SOPA addresses. The best SOPA will do is raise the bar a little, make it tougher for casual pirates to get what they want. For a little while. It used to be hard to order shoes and find flight information on the Internet, too. Streaming radio used to be a real pain in the ass, and streaming video used to be limited to high-speed laboratory networks and only after fifteen minutes of downloading codecs and buffering. I’m pretty confident in saying, then, that SOPA won’t fix the problem it purports to fix.
The second reason I oppose it is that it opens up the Web as we know it to a number of abuses, with little oversight. Nobody with a site of any modest size will be able to know FOR SURE that they have not fallen afoul of this law without a) deleting every link visitors post, b) following every link they don’t delete, c) reading every post to make sure it’s not discussing circumvention. That’s like demanding that brick and mortar stores monitor their bathroom graffiti. If nothing else, comment spam means that almost every web site that accepts comments will eventually be an offending site under this act. And how long will it be until warring sites start trying to slip SOPA violations into posts to get disliked sites shut down? Sure, that’s not the *intent* of the act, but the courts have repeatedly said that the intent of a law does not need to be taken into account when applying it. Which means that the authorities will basically be able to shut down any site they want. Maybe we trust them to only want to shut down the worst of the worst, but we won’t know who it is we’re trusting, and we won’t know what instructions they’re given, and we won’t know what the penalties are for them for getting it wrong. We won’t know how overworked they are and how much they’re relying on outside lists of “offending sites” provided by who-knows-who.
We’ve been here before with the DMCA, and we’ve seen that the power to send out take-down notices has been abused, not least because there’s no real penalty for a slipshod, scattershot, “better me safe and you sorry” approach. We’re not coming at this situation de novo, we’re coming at this having already seen the kind of abuses that get perpetrated with even less authority than is being asked for.
So, for you writers who’ve been tempted to support SOPA to protect your own work, let me boil it down for you:
1) It won’t work even for the major multi-billion dollar copyright holders, let alone for you
2) In exchange for a broken hair-brained scheme, one of the major accomplishments of our generation (a free and open Internet that has already improved the world more than Hollywood ever will) will be seriously endangered.