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Why Congress couldn't clean up the Internet with SOPA Add to ...

Seldom, even in the acronym-focused world of American politics, have truth and lyricism been so Cirque-du-Soleil-contorted as they have been in the naming the of PROTECT IP Act, or the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011.

It's about the only thing that could put the succinctly named Stop Online Piracy Act, known as SOPA, in a positive light. Support for both the PROTECT IP Act, usually called PIPA (you know it’s a problem when your acronym needs an acronym), and SOPA dropped dramatically in Congress during Wednesday's website-blackout protest by Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing and numerous other sites.

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Beginning with Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, one by one, former bill sponsor after former bill supporter fell, like one domino after another. Not like the song Domino by Van Morrison, or the song by Genesis, or the record label, or the album by Squeeze, or the album by Roland Kirk, and not like the band Domino, or the rapper, and not like Fats Domino.

Senator Rubio did not fall like a Domino car, or the character from The X-Men, or the pizza chain, or the 1977 Atari arcade game.

And certainly no one fell in a manner associated with closing salutation Benedicamus Domino used in the Latin mass.

No, these politicians fell instead like a row of the gaming pieces that make up a set of dominos (sometimes called a deck or pack), which is one of a number of tile games played worldwide.

Each of these possible entries from Wikipedia's disambiguation for the word “domino” was written by someone professing to have knowledge of that subject; each entry is reviewed and edited by others professing the same thing. Citations are requested and given, or the request is left pending until it has been met.

If you've never done it, find an entry on Wikipedia on a single, narrow subject and observe it over several weeks. In all likelihood, that entry will change, and sometimes it will be changed back, often within minutes. Usually it will be embellished with intriguing minutiae and links will be added.

A Wikipedia entry often unfurls with a method that is at once naive and yet miraculous to behold, like watching a pea planted in a Dixie cup on a sunny windowsill of a Grade 2 classroom.

Wikipedia, flawed but delightful, is a venture that few would have predicted could succeed. It was born of risk and imagination in a largely unfettered Internet, and it would be a far different beast if SOPA were to pass.

A single link on any website, even in a comment, to something copyright-infringing, or to something that someone claims infringes copyright, or a link to something that no lawyer could argue against but that happens to be hosted on the same site as something that someone claims infringes copyright would mean that your site could potentially be blocked.

Of course, SOPA wouldn't just harm non-profits like Wikipedia. Who would have invested in Google knowing that one link to the wrong website could shut the whole thing down? The policing and legal costs that would burden every website they did not kill off would be passed on to the consumer.

Imagine if every cartographer were responsible for any crimes being committed in the places he charted – to which he, essentially, created links. There would be a lot less exploration.

That would be the online world under SOPA and PIPA. The Internet's culture of contribution and connection would be decimated. The Net would be unrecognizable, except that of course there would still be pirates.

Pirates, whether they are boarding your ship and taking your pieces of eight or downloading your big-budget films and making their fortunes by selling them to others, don't obey the law (remember, copyright-protection laws already exist). Making the lives of a lot of other (admittedly sometimes seafaring) folks more constrained, litigious and generally less creative isn't going to guilt one single real pirate into suddenly becoming a decent, hard-working longshoreman.

However, what might work – if the aim of these bills is really to curtail the amount of illegally viewed films and television shows, and not to preserve outdated business models, or to allow governments more control over the Web – is facilitating better access to more legal viewing. This is a process that has been, I would say, suspiciously slow.

Follow on Twitter: @TabathaSouthey

 
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