The Sound and the Fury, This Week

19 01 2012

It wasn’t planned, but I guess I told you that story to tell you this one.

Much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth went on yesterday to protest two bills under consideration in the US congress: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT Intellectual Property Act – and yes it is a really long acronym like the USA PATRIOT Act). In short, various web sites like Wikipedia and Boing Boing “blacked out” for 24 hours to protest the bills. Craigslist just made a timed interstitial linking to their views on the topic but the site was still functional, because apparently commerce waits for no man.

Nothing persuades like appeals to emotion, if Craigslist may be considered a representative sample of the outcry:

<RANT>Try to imagine jack-booted thugs throttling free speech, poisoning the Internet (greatest of American inventions, the very pillar of modern democracy), and devastating one of the our [sic] most successful industries. Totalitarian, anti-American, massively-job-killing nonsense.</RANT>

Considering the sheer mass of the internet (if it could be quantified in this manner) it would take quite a few “jack-booted thugs” to throttle that much free speech. Which sounds like job creation city, baby!

It didn’t shock me to learn that Boing Boing was in on this “blackout” action, as Cory Doctorow is, Wikipedia quote for cheeky irony…

[..] an activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licences for his books.

Once Boing Boing was back online, I took a few moments to read through their spin on SOPA and PIPA and found this nugget (permalink not available):

PIPA sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) can’t figure out why people don’t like it: “Hiding behind the black box of self-censorship does not resolve the problem that is plaguing American business and hurting American consumers.”

The quoted text contained a link to Senator Leahy’s official web site, which I followed, and read this:

“Much of what has been claimed about the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions. The PROTECT IP Act will not affect Wikipedia, will not affect Reddit, and will not affect any website that has any legitimate use. A foreign rogue website is clearly defined as one that has no real purpose other than infringement. Theft and fraud on this scale undermines consumer trust in online transactions. Perhaps if these companies would participate constructively, they could point to what in the actual legislation they contend threatens their websites, and then we could dispel their misunderstandings. That is what debate on legislation is intended to do, to fine-tune the bill to confront the problem of stealing while protecting against unintended consequences.[“]

Ding ding ding.

I dare say that unlike many of the blackers-out and fist-shakers, I actually read the text of the PIPA bill. End to end. The whole enchilada. And maybe the offending passage(s) was/were written in Latin (Crushum Semper Internetatum) but honestly I didn’t find anything about jack-booted thugs and a lusty desire to destroy, destroy I tell you, the internet.

What I did see was some semblance of an attempt to regulate and/or outright disrupt such sites as The Pirate Bay. I won’t wax all holier-than-thou, being no stranger to The Pirate Bay and its like, but I do know that sooner or later the free ride is going to end, or become harder to find.

As for free speech getting muzzled, it could be argued that sites like Wikileaks could be the target of such legislation as their sole aim is to print classified information. Wikileaks is hosted outside of the US, which could brand it a “foreign rogue site” ripe for censorship.

But some of the more sensational claims require actual evidence. Will jack-booted thugs enact and enforce SOPA and PIPA? Will free speech cease to exist? Will sites like this one be silenced forever for having the audacity to claim… Fair Use?

(If I were on the anti-SOPA and PIPA soapbox, this would be where I would rant about how jack-booted thugs would SHUT ME DOWN FOREVER because I embedded a – gasp! – YouTube video on my site. Good thing I’m more rational than that.)

To be fair, I have not read the text of the SOPA bill. It wouldn’t shock me if SOPA was indeed draconian, Orwellian, profane, outrageous, sensational, utter madness, and a hard boiled egg. House bills tend to be wild like that but that’s no excuse. Senate bills, on the contrary, are supposed to be high-minded, rational, all about the people, and basically read like how Senator John Kerry (MA) speaks. Maybe that’s why I am a) bored and b) cheeky about PIPA.

I mean, get a grip, people. Neither bill has passed. This does not mean that the debate won’t be a bunch of Kabuki theater intended to produce a hellscape of jack-booted thugs lustily squelching your freedom of speech. But I have to ask: What’s in it for the people who are telling you/us that SOPA and PIPA is the gateway to the anti-Christ? What’s their stake in this? Why would Craigslist fret that Monster Cable (no, really) will use either or both bills to shut them down forever?

I do agree that The People (yes you) should be educated about what the congress is debating when and what it all means. But parroting someone’s party line because it seems revolutionary and all “sticking it to the man” without actually knowing the facts? That’s not the path to the light either.

But this would hardly be the first or last time that “the internet” was mired in controversy, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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