Productivity in North America must be through the roof: The Internet is boring on Wednesday.
You can still go to NBC’s website to watch advertisements before a few clips from Saturday Night Live. Facebook is still working. The Globe and Mail is still pumping out insightful political commentary.
But the things that make the Internet amazing – Reddit, Wikipedia, Cheezburger, Dailywh.at – are all going to be unavailable for the day.
The reason is to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, legislation before the United States Congress that would allow copyright holders to seek court orders against websites accused of facilitating copyright infringement.
Actions envisioned in the legislation include ending payment to those sites through online advertising, banning search engines from reporting those sites, and ordering ISPs to block access. It would make downloading copyright material a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
Uploading copyright material could similarly face criminal or civil proceedings. Taken to its extreme, the bill effectively criminalizes uploading to YouTube a children’s birthday party including the copyrighted song Happy Birthday.
At first blush, this is an extension of the classic battle between producerism and consumerism.
Consumerism is the well-known, American-invented philosophy of defining oneself by brands of consumption. I wear Nike, therefore I am an athlete. I drive a Suburban, therefore I am outdoorsy. I drink Starbucks, therefore I am cultured.
Producerism is the less-well-known French alternative philosophy of defining oneself by their output of production. I paint, therefore I am an artist. I draft legal arguments, therefore I am a lawyer. I throw cobblestones, therefore I am a protester.
Adam Gopnik defines the difference delightfully: “For [Americans] an elevator operator is only a tourist’s way of getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower. For the French, a tourist is only an elevator operator’s opportunity to practice his métier in a suitably impressive setting.”
Intellectual property is the most visible and graphic battlefield for this long-running clash, primarily because intellectual property is so liquid.
When you take physical property, you remove the property from another person’s possession. Theft is a clear action with few complications. I steal a loaf of bread from you. I have the loaf. You do not. Cleary, I have harmed you.
When you take intellectual property, typically you leave the property in the other person’s possession and make a copy. The issue is not theft, per se. It is failure to pay fair compensation. Harm is hard to prove, and still harder for the “criminal” to accept.
There are valid arguments both for and against the wide distribution of intellectual property.
On the one hand, copyright holders deserve compensation for their efforts. Intellectual property is a major employer in the United States (and Canada). Those who work to create something should not have to see their work sold illegally by someone else for profit, with no compensation or attribution. As a producer of art or music or a book of fart jokes, I deserve to receive every penny my work generates as compensation for my genius and sweat.
On the other hand, people around the world take original work and add to it with their own creativity, creating new art, music and ideas. From mashups to memes, the Internet democratizes creativity and allows any one of us to do something amazing. As a consumer of art or music or a book of fart jokes, I should have access to material at as close to zero cost as possible and with maximum ability to reframe the result as I see fit.
Intellectual property “theft” can produce benefits. For instance, this guy on Reddit who created one of the best Zombie-rated works of the last ten years. It’s nothing but intellectual property violations, but undeniably creative in its own right.
In another example, American consumers have long ordered prescription drugs from Canada over the Internet, avoiding higher costs due to more stringent drug patents in the United States. SOPA would criminalize the websites – operated by pharmacists and requiring doctor’s prescriptions – that offer these lower cost drugs to hundreds of thousands of Americans. Patent-holders argue they spend billions to develop drugs and need to maximize their profits to create the next Lipitor, but tell that to a pensioner who needs an expensive drug to live.
The issue is even more complex when the user of the intellectual property is not doing it for profit even in avoidance of profit. Wikipedia is a good example, where thousands of editors create entries in an on-line encyclopedia. Certainly, they are competing with Britannica and traditional encyclopedias, but their purpose is not to replace the original work but to catalogue its existence.
But property is property, and Wikipedia strives to limit the use of copyright material in their entries. The result is sometimes unintentionally hilarious, as Hollywood stars, with images carefully guarded by Hollywood publicists, enjoy photographs from random amatures taken at red carpet events. Red eye and bad lighting in one of their highest profile web entries is the price for copyright on better photos.
The best way to understand the opposition to the bill is to look at one of its key provisions.
In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allowed for “safe harbors.” The argument was that owners of copyright material could contact hosts of material and request that their images or works be removed. The onus was on the copyright holder to police the Internet.
SOPA moves the onus from the copyright holder to the website. With loosely written provisions, even a single copyright image could result in the shutdown of an entire website. At its most extreme, Facebook could close because you uploaded an Anne Geddes picture of a baby in a flower.
Champions of the bill say it is aimed at foreign websites that specialize in offering copyrighted material for download, including entire films and albums. Having eliminated Napster and other domestic file-sharing services, Congress is now going after off-shore equivalents. The problem is that policing these sites is almost impossible, regardless of the law in the United States. When a pirate site is found and scoured from Google, it will only reappear hours later with a new name and address.
Short of recreating the Great Firewall of China around American consumers, and scouring with deep-packet inspection every bit transmitted, malicious copyright infringement will continue.
Like many bill, SOPA likely started with the best of intentions. The creative industries are major employers in the United States, and there is rampant, industrial-scale copyright violation going on in international markets.
However, the United States Congress only has powers over Americans, and the resulting law punishes domestic sites unduly, squelching innovation and creativity, while failing to materially impact the very target of the bill. Global property pirates will still be selling bootleg movies in Mumbai after this bill passes, but the Internet will be significantly less innovative.
The creativity and innovation of the Internet would continue, but pushed underground, chased and reviled by authority. The result is an Internet I wouldn’t want to be see: where anonymity is the first condition of free speech and creativity.
Where the free exchange of ideas is divorced from our day to day lives, building ever greater walls between the digital “us” that is free from accountability and the flesh and blood “us” that must implement our ideas in a real world. The result is an Internet of greater polarization and coarseness, rampant with tribalism and atomization of the individual from society.
Tighter provisions might focus this legislation to target global profiteers while leaving harmless domestic audiences free to openly engage in their Constitutionally-protected speech. But the real forum for this battle is diplomacy aimed at getting countries like China to recognize their own need to police domestic piracy rings, rather than targeting the innocent.