Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Why I support SOPA
Mostly because I am a troll and because the extreme positions taken in this debate annoy me. So I take a bit of the "avocat du diable" (devils lawyer in french) position on this one. But let me clarify.
I spent a good part of my professional life in the world of Free and Open Source Software (aka FLOSS). There as a producer of content I helped pioneer a model to make money off a free software product. We operated in the application layer of the internet and distributed our wares for free. In the FLOSS community, people are actually fairly educated when it comes to IP, licenses, trademarks, copyrights, patents etc. Lately I spend a lot of time in writing music and have got to see first hand who is impacted by the net.
The goals of SOPA
The goal is rather straightforward. Online piracy and counter-feit are rampant. Most people do not see "downloading a song, a movie, buying counter-feit products" as theft, it is perceived as innocuous. What is more technology has contributed to enabling this. P2P, social sites, torrents, powerful search have all enabled easy access to pirated content.
Respect of IP is key to our economic future
Increasingly the western world relies on IP to make a living. Since we produce less "real world" goods and more "digital world" goods we open ourselves to piracy. If we are to move to an information based economy there needs to be a limit to the infringement of IP. In music for example instead of releasing VST plugins, people prefer to tie them to hardware or the iPad to make sure they monetize their creations. I for one welcome the innovation in music instruments on the ipad and realize it is because a/ the platform lends itself to it b/ the platform helps monetize.
The implementation of SOPA
Essentially what is new in SOPA is that it supersedes "safe harbor" provisions of DMCA, the previous legislation around digital based IP. The onus is on a content provider to monitor and censor their own content. Failure to do so will result in DNS blocking. This is important and is worth a bit of explanation. Say you upload pirated content to youtube. Essentially today you will receive a notice on youtube saying "we detect that this is not your content please remove bla bla bla". If you don't do so, then it is all kosher, it just goes on. With SOPA, youtube would have to shut you down, if they don't they can be blocked. DNS is essentially what maps meaningful names like www.piratebay.com to more esoteric IP addresses like 220.127.116.11. This would require that top DNS domains comply with the law.
This is a cost to content providers
Of course this is cumbersome for content providers and will add cost to their operation as well as complexity. In reality crowd sourcing of content monitoring is implementable and what is required is that providers then act on the information. This is work and in my opinion the gist of the opposition against the bill. Filtering of IP is already implemented in most corporate firewalls and used for censorship in China for example. I am not endorsing censorship just making a technical point. Google does censor when the Chinese government tells them so. The internet continues to function at a DNS level. Surely DNS modifications like the one hinted here is no "undermining the core infrastructure" of domain naming.
This is an opportunity cost to providers
Remember the Apple iPod original adds? "Rip/listen"? the truth is that most providers turn a blind eye to these activities because it constitutes traffic and they like traffic first and foremost.
Criticism: abuse of SOPA
From what I can tell, the central criticism is in the abuse of SOPA. People are fretting that this broad legislation will be abused by corporations effectively giving them censorship power. Obviously this is a hysteric generalization not helped by the fact that, according to wikipedia, some RIAA companies already have lists including their own artists and competing (but legal) sites. But truly nothing in the law says this is what will result, to see it as a risk is a valid concern, but an over-reaching one. If someone uses this to kill competition then that someone should be prosecuted. Abuse of this law should be punished, from what I can tell there are provisions in the bill to do just that.
Free Speech, censorship
A more excited fringe says this is a violation of free speech. How we got to free speech is baffling to me. There is a world of difference between theft of digital IP and free speech. If the law is used by abusing corporations to shut down dissent or competition again those corporations should be heavily punished. If the US government uses this to enforce chinese style censorship, I would be the first one buying servers in the cayman islands to put TOR on it. This is not china. The people who argue 'free speech' come across as an excited fringe to me.
It will create jobs
Another baffling argument comes from the valley, that this will essentially destroy jobs. Au contraire a strong IP approach will create jobs and it is a necessary step towards assuring a monetary economy on the net. That various chambers of commerce or the AFL-CIO support this bill speaks volumes. The US industry increasingly produces digital goods. Protect them.
Corp vs the people, government vs the people
A lot of the debate stems from a mistrust of corporations to do the right thing. I get it. But the potentials for abuse, which should be monitored and punished, do not validate piracy, which I consider outright theft. A related argument stems from a distrust of government and legislation. What do those clowns in Washington know? The fact that so many VCs threatened to stop investing, when the first question you usually get is how many patents are protecting your IP, is disingenuous. I say call their bluff, you think they will stop investing? huh, huh, the days pigs fly.
It won't stop piracy
For sure it will not stop piracy entirely, those that want to put the IP address will always do so, those that want to circumvent DNS will do so . But it will seriously curb piracy.
It will stifle innovation
This one again baffles me. How can this legislation be used to kill startups? If it is, whomever is doing it should be prosecuted.
It will place unlimited liability on new companies
This argument is usually put out by the software investors. Again I find this linked to the cost of implementing the law. But I doubt it will create an infinite liability. This is the kind of argument from my friends in silicon valley that sounds as honest as the record companies already planning to shut down their own artists.
But my music does not need that
As a nod to my musician friends, a lot of what I hear is "but you know the real way to make music is through live shows, not your music". As someone who doesn't do live shows I think the internet really has killed the music business, before you could make money with you records AND the shows. Today only shows and some licensing if you are lucky. I don't mind the majors but don't care if they live or die, I just do not consume their products by and large. I can see that things like "bandcamp", "itunes" or "beatport" allow one to make a living, today meager and insufficient in most cases. However it is obvious to me that piracy is the single most important factor in the decline of the monetization of music. Why should one be content with piracy as a "matter of fact" is baffling. You can distribute your music for free but that is your choice (certainly mine in some instances).
The internet as the last bastion of libertarianism
Look, I get it. I was once called a "bearded freak of the sandal brigade", referring to the die hard "freedom or death" ethos of the old UNIX/Internet folks. I personally sported crew cut, shave regularly and yes, I did wear smelly sandals in my PhD years. But I think that on the part of a lot of my friends and acquaintances in the software world, there is a strong emotional response to "censorship on the net". The webs is one of the last bastions of libertarianism, at least in ethos. We are far from china and protecting that freedom does mean cracking down on piracy. I view with mild cynicism the countless corporations that are anti-SOPA, mostly the content providers, who wrapped themselves in the flag of freedom when we are just balking at regulation that will cost to them and talk of Armageddon to the US industry.
This is not the way
An interesting point made by many people is that in fact the solution may be in new business models to circumvent piracy, think Itunes/bandcamp/spotify etc etc, Surely these are welcome additions and successful but it doesn't make up for piracy.
A flawed implemenation
By and large, I welcome the controversy as it puts in light a lot of the question around digital IP. I can sit here and argue why the software patent system is fundamentally broken in the US as well as argue for SOPA. I can also discuss the finer points of DNS filtering and IP fire-walling, but that to me is largely irrelevant. The truth is that technology has not been able to police the abuses of the net and it doesn't really want to either. But if the implementation of SOPA is ripe for abuse that means that anyone that abuses it should be sternly punished. Police the police, doesn't mean there is no police. There is "social contract" that is needed in the internet, one that today is not in existence for those who claim to "first do no evil". Traffic at all cost, "rip/listen".
I do think that a proper SOPA needs to see the light of day, it is worth the wait to get it right and get every corporation sensitized to what "abuse" will mean, since some RIAA people are already running wild with this. They should know better. But the fact remains, that in a strict view of property, which included digital intellectual property, what is going on in the internet today is out of control. It is worth the wait and getting it right.