What’s bothering me about the SOPA “discussion”

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There are 3 things that have really been bothering me about how the SOPA/PIPA discussion has been going so far.

it’s not a discussion at all — it’s people calling each other names.

it’s highly likely to have a result that is unhelpful at best, and insanely destructive at worst

we’re building a completely worthless/bad roadmap for how to deal with technology policy going forward, and it’s going to get worse

Let me be very clear: SOPA is a terrible law that should not be enacted under any circumstances. It’s broken technically and misguided from a policy point of view. It not only won’t accomplish what advocates want it to accomplish, but it also will create backbreaking burdens and barriers to entry for some of our most promising technology companies and cultural movements of the coming decade.

But also: content creators & owners have a legitimate beef with how their content can be appropriated and distributed so easily by rogue actors.

Here’s the conversation we should be having: content & technology should be very aligned. Hollywood and Silicon Valley (broadly speaking — I’m talking metaphorically here) both want the same things ultimately: easier and bigger ways to share and enjoy awesome content from all sources, in a way that’s economic for everyone involved.

What we should be talking about is how to get better alignment, how to build systems and content that is better for, you know, actual human beings to use and enjoy.

But that isn’t the conversation that’s happening (and I use the term “conversation” here very loosely, since it has characteristics more like a bunch of schoolyard name calling). The conversation that’s happening is going more like this:

– content: “you people are stealing our stuff. you’re thieves”

– techies: “we’re not stealing it. we’re just building great apps for users.”

– content: “you’re ignoring the problem and helping the thieves. you’re effectively pirates, so we’re going to shut everyone down.”

– techies: “you’re acting like jackbooted fascists, embracing censorship and your’e going to end everything that’s good about culture today.”

– content: “we’re trying to protect our content — you guys are pretending like there’s no problem, then getting rich off platforms that pillage our content.”

– techies: “you don’t understand how the Internet works — how do you even live life in the 21st century? dinosaurs.”

So that’s awesome. Then you throw Congress into the mix and hilarity ensues. Because if you’re looking for folks who really do not act like they want to understand the Internet, Capitol Hill is a pretty good place to start. And then this is all devolving into a fight of pirates versus creators. Of protectors-of-democracy versus fascists. Or whatever.

What we need to be talking about is where the actual infringement problem is happening (I’ve heard from folks that the vast majority of the problem is on the order of a few dozen syndicates overseas). And how we need to be thinking about copyright law — in an age where copies are the natural order of things, as opposed to previously, when it was harder to make copies. And what sorts of law enforcement resources we need to bring to bear to shut down the activity of these real malicious actors overseas. (At root, I’m persuaded that the current issues are really law enforcement issues – we need to figure out how to enforce the laws that are already on the books to protect IP, not create new ones.)

Acting like there’s no problem isn’t the answer — there is a legitimate IP issue here. But pressuring a behind-the-times and contributions-captive legislative body to enact overly intrusive and abusable laws is even worse, both economically and civically.

What’s extremely discouraging to me right now is that I don’t really see how we can have a nuanced, technically-informed, respectful discussion/debate/conversation/working relationship. I’m not convinced that Congress is at all the right body to be taking up these issues, and am 100% convinced that they don’t currently have the technical wherewithal to make informed decisions, in any event.

So what we’re left with is one group pushing their captive legislators for new, over-reaching laws and calling technologists names. And a group reacting to that by calling names back.

I think the best that we can hope for in this scenario is that the current bill will grind to a halt and nothing will change. But I think that can’t be where we aim for the future.

Because technology policy issues are going to come up again and again and again as time goes on. (Next up, undoubtedly, is another round of privacy legislation, and I would predict the name calling will be even more intense and even less productive.)

We’re mediating more of our lives than ever through new technologies that we barely understand as technologists, let alone consumers or civic leaders. We need to figure out ways to have meaningful discussions, to try out policies that may or may not work at first and iterate quickly on them, like we do with products themselves.

I don’t have any answers here, but wanted to write down what’s been bugging me, as I think we all need to think more about what we want our lives to look like in the future.

Photo by Caspar Rubin

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