SOPA V. Soapy: In 2012 Government and Big Business Will Understand How Powerless They Are In The Face Of Human Ingenuity
SOPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act.
The entertainment industry and, I suspect, some folks along the Republican side of the aisle, want the ability to block any website from view that could have possibly, maybe once, but we’re not really sure, hosted copyrighted content illegally. In principle, I get it. The entertainment companies would very much like to stop dumping millions of dollars into projects that have to actually be good in order to recoup their cost. The current state of affairs seems to be; “I create a crappy but mildly entertaining product, people get wind of the fact that it’s probably not going to be very good and therefore not worthy of their hard-earned money and they either download it illegally, or wait for it to arrive on DVD, OnDemand, or Netflix.
The simple solution, of course would be for content producers to stop churning out endless acres of crap. But that’s never going to happen. So we get SOPA; a nuclear option to stop the money from bleeding out.
But is the money bleeding out in enough quantities to warrant a nuclear option?
I really don’t think so.
The vast majority of consumers fall into what I call the baseline user class. They own at least one full computer (desktop/laptop) likely a smartphone and maybe (a very slim percentage so far but growing) a tablet of some sort.Maybe they do a bit of gaming but mostly they surf the internet, watch cat videos on YouTube, get a bit of work done and post embarrassing pictures of themselves and others on Facebook. That is the vast, vast majority of users. I’ve tried to explain to those of my friends that fall into this category how to use tools like Bittorrent to acquire free (or stolen, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction you happen to live in) content, but it mostly falls on incapable ears. Gone are the halcyon days of piracy through simple channels like Napster and Kazaa. Pirating in the modern era is much more efficient but also requires a bit more specialized knowledge and effort, two things that the baselines lack when it comes to entertainment.
When the average user thinks about digital content, it usually comes in convenient but paid for and licensed forms like iTunes, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. The vast, vast majority of consumers pay for every single piece of digital content they consume. Sure, the way they’ve chosen to consume it means scaled down profits for content producer but, as Republicans and Tea Baggers love to remind everyone, the market determines value, not whatever you think something should be worth.
So why SOPA?
Power, control, censorship and a deep misunderstanding of the technological proficiency of the people who actually understand how the internet in general and piracy in particular work.
Congress believes, by virtue of the authority granted to them by those who’ve elected them, that they have power. The entertainment industry believes, by virtue of its billions of dollars in revenue, that they have power. The supporters of SOPA who aren’t tied to either of those spheres believe, by virtue of their influence over daily life on the internet (see GoDaddy) that they have power.
And they are all correct. But it is not true power, because it is utterly dependent on a combination of our tolerance and apathy, two traits which are mercifully shrinking within the populace at large.
Congress, for example, is filled with people who care not a bit for the desires of those who voted them into power. They care, almost exclusively, about pushing the agenda of their political party. They care about winning. But they can only do so if they are allowed to continue holding office, so they have to walk a tightrope between their own desires and not doing anything that the lowest common denominator of their electorate will find undesirable. Their power is derived from us and they can only exercise control over us to the extent that we allow it. At least in four year blocks.
Large service and content providers like those within the entertainment industry are subject to the same limitations. Yes, their money equates directly to power and influence. But they can only continue to exercise those advantages if we continue to give them money. Which is why the passage of SOPA is so important to them. They are trying to force us to pay for their schlock whether we care to or not and, really, it’s hard not to foresee a scenario where one of the major content providers decides that something hosted on Netflix somehow violates a copyright agreement and uses the broad powers of SOPA to blockade the legitimate services we choose to use in lieu of more expensive options. They want to dictate terms to the market. The reason that they’re being so brazen in their measures this time is, ironically, that the very same limitation that should make them think twice about so joyously biting the hands that feed them (our ability to effect a boycott of their services and thus drain them of all of their resources) is exactly the thing that we won’t exercise. Time and again (with the exception of the recent GoDaddy mass exodus) we’ve shown that when principle clashes with convenience, convenience wins. It is a frustrating flaw of the human condition.
What both governments and corporations fail to understand is that individual mastery of technology within our culture has become such that, within the relatively small percentage of the population that doesn’t fall into the baseline category of users, there exist large pockets of individuals who have the power, from a keyboard, to thwart the concerted efforts of Big Business and Big Government with relative ease, especially when it comes to the field of internet censorship.
Case in point:
This morning I read this article that talks about a browser extension for Firefox called Soapy. Soapy is a tiny little script that can be downloaded and installed by anybody, into Firefox on any computer, by means of simply dragging the script file to your browser window. And its sole purpose is to change the way your browser looks up websites that have been blocked by SOPA and instantly navigate around ISP enabled blocks to allow you access to your content.
Before SOPA has even been passed, someone has found a way to render it moot. And this is just the first blow; this is just one guy, typing away from the comfort of his home office. Others will follow. It will become easier and easier for the baseline user to access tools that free them from the oppression of corporate and government interests, and that is a very good thing.
But why is it so easy?
Because the people who seek to control and censor online content don’t understand that the internet isn’t a thing that they can contain within the laws of the land. It isn’t something that you can control. The internet is more than cables and connections and websites. It is, like Soylent Green, people.
And people, whether en masse or as individuals, will always find a way to remain free.
Even from the clutches of Sony Entertainment and the Tea Party.
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Responding to a question from the audience, the former US Vice President said that while content creators have legitimate concerns, SOPA is not the right answer.
“In our world today there is hardly anything more important [...] than to save and protect the vibrancy and freedom of the Internet,” Gore said.
“The Internet is bringing life back to democracy.”
“Anything that would threaten the vibrancy and freedom of the Internet and the future, I’m against.”
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Make no mistake, anti-piracy organizations have a thin line to tread. On the one hand they have to show their efforts yield results, and on the other that the piracy situation is so bad that they are needed more than ever. From two different mouths the RIAA has been doing that just this week but it’s hard to accept that either approach yields results without being counter-productive.
Some people believe that anti-piracy groups do a hateful and cynical job, and achieve little other than negative publicity.
Others maintain that they are absolutely necessary to protect the livelihoods of the world’s creative industries, and without them the world would be a worse place.
Whatever the belief held, proponents and opponents alike are nevertheless intrigued by what happens behind the closed doors of anti-piracy groups, particularly when viewed through the prism of their press announcements.
Just this week Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) Chairman & CEO Cary Sherman commented on the White House launch of a new awareness campaign along with PSAs designed to alert the US public to the apparent perils of piracy.
“As a community still plagued by the rampant theft of our work, we have seen firsthand the devastating effects this theft can have on the lives of hard-working, passionate musicians, songwriters, producers and countless others,” said Sherman.
While the RIAA’s support of this type of campaign is nothing new, the last decade witnessed a much more controversial way of spreading the anti-piracy message – massive legal action which saw the music group settle with thousands of individuals for millions of dollars and sue a few unfortunate souls to within an inch of their lives for millions of dollars each.
As the RIAA previously told TorrentFreak, that legal campaign was designed to attract attention after PSAs previously run by the group were shown to make “little difference”. But there are also other techniques available to the RIAA to tip the market in their favor.
During November, Tennessean.com ran an article titled Music Row spent $4 million on lobbying in 3 months in which they state that the industry’s focus on lobbying “comes after the music industry’s use of a tactic, now almost universally acknowledged as a failure, in which it filed lawsuits against individuals accused of illegally downloading songs to stop piracy.”
So a failure then? Absolutely not, says the RIAA in a just-published response.
“Our legal efforts served as an essential educational tool: Fans know far more now about copyright laws and the legal consequences of stealing music than ever before. Before initiating lawsuits in 2003, only 35 percent of people knew file-sharing on P2P was illegal; afterward, awareness grew to 70 percent,” writes RIAA Director of Communications Liz Kennedy.
“Where there was virtually no legal digital market before the lawsuits, today the market exceeds $3 billion annually, and revenue from online platforms will comprise more than 50 percent of total industry revenues this year,” she continues adding that doing nothing would have meant illegal downloading would have “skyrocketed further”.
The RIAA’s conclusion is shown in the title of the piece – RIAA largely succeeds in goal of bringing piracy under control – but that seems scarcely compatible with Sherman’s comments that the industry is being subjected to rampant theft, unless “controlled rampant theft” is something the RIAA associates with a successful outcome to an anti-piracy campaign.
While Sherman may be offering support to the new PSA’s issued by the government, it’s clear that from previous comments the RIAA have little faith in them. The sue-em-all campaign certainly raised awareness, but it hasn’t negated the need for millions to be spent on lobbying, most recently in support of PROTECT IP and SOPA.
And here’s the thing. There are few people outside the music industry (maybe even inside) who think that suing customers turned out to be a particularly clever thing to do. Similar numbers are supportive of the industry’s championing of SOPA. All of this only adds credibility to the arguments of those who say that anti-piracy groups do a hateful and cynical job, and achieve little else other than generate negativity.
Worryingly, this is a view widely held by the ‘Internet Generation’ who are the ones expected to forget the past and utilize RIAA-sanctioned music services in the future. The cry of F*** THE RIAA didn’t exist before the lawsuits and it will take a long time to forget – support of draconian SOPA-style legislation only succeeds in prolonging the memories.
Of course, the RIAA will always justify their worth, characterizing questionable former campaigns as a success but noting that there is a new crisis in the piracy war that means they’re needed more than ever before.
However, all is not lost, because the RIAA already have the solution. I’ll leave you with Liz Kennedy’s words from The Tennessean which show that rather than throwing millions at lawyers and lobbying, maybe the RIAA should spend some time getting advice from Valve and Steam, and learning how influencing the public is really done.
“To be clear, no legal efforts are a panacea,” says Kennedy, “compelling legal consumption options are the most important.”
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