Some followup thoughts on my SOPA post

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The best thing about writing for me is that it helps me figure out what I really think about things. And one of the very best things about doing it on the web is that others can collaborate, disagree, tweak, suggest, and generally help think through things even better. So after a couple of days of Friday’s SOPA post rolling around in my head, I think I have a tighter point of view now that I wanted to write down. (There were some great tweets, mails, comments & posts in reaction to what I wrote. Super thoughtful & useful.

Here are a few specific starting points, then I’ll get to my main point, which is that we (a technologically-oriented US, at least) are not well set up for the future in terms of how we evolve tech policy. Not a new thought, but I think the SOPA situation may be putting us in a worse spot.

But first 3 starting points and a personal observation:

1. SOPA+PIPA are awful bills. No way around it. They over-reach, they circumscribe civil liberties, and they mostly will not work. They shouldn’t pass, and we should do whatever we can to keep that from happening. They’re the latest in a long line of legislation that looks like this: reducing freedoms in a misguided attempt to protect us from a different big bad. They’re so numerous in US history they hardly need listing here.

2. Existing industries are always oriented towards self-preservation. No exception here. But there’s a funny thing that happens: the most progressive companies of today who become successful and dominant will become reactionary in the future, oriented themselves towards self-preservation. Same as it ever was. And you can see it even in the current situation — the companies who are most outspoken are the modern Internet companies: LinkedIn, Mozilla, Zynga, Google, etc etc. Mostly on the sidelines are the most progressive technology companies of the past decades, even including Apple. So this is not, fundamentally, a techie v content type of issue at all, but more of a progressive v conservative technology issue.

3. We do have existing laws and norms. A number of folks argued that content owners just need to accept that pirated goods are a viable alternative and need to learn how to compete with them. I’m wholly unpersuaded by that point of view. Or, rather, I believe we do have existing laws that govern how we behave. It’s pretty clear (to me at least) that content businesses will need to evolve, and many interesting ones already have. But that’s something for a lawful market to decide, not for anyone to thrust onto content owners & creators.

And then a personal observation: I was actually a little nervous writing about SOPA last week because of the tone of the conversation to date. I felt like it might actually provoke harsh negative reaction and somehow brand me as “SOPA-friendly” or against the web. That’s a weird thing for me to feel, as I think my web & open culture bona fides are pretty well established at this point between my work with Mozilla, PCF, Code for America, and now Tumblr, etc etc. That by itself tells me that there’s something wrong about how things are going.

Okay, so given all that as a context, here’s my main point: no matter what outcome we get to with respect to SOPA+PIPA, we’re in a bad spot going forward.

I think much of the legitimate frustration on the Silicon Valley side of the fence is that there seems to be no way to have a meaningful conversation about this stuff in ways that we know to be productive. It’s happening at this point with some guy who doesn’t seem to understand technology having his staff & a bunch of lobbyists prepare a non-sensical bill and then try to jam it through Congress, without any real effort to understand what might actually work. (And, worse, it’s being done in a way that seems deliberately designed to misinform.) So it’s a bunch of backroom, captured discussion that has massive impact on how we live our lives — and it’s all completely opaque (at best).

The real thing that I’m worrying more and more about is not SOPA per se, although that’s a very large problem itself. The real problem that I see is that our government just isn’t set up to make meaningful technology policy decisions going forward. I think Larry Lessig would argue that that’s now true about all facets of modern life, but I think that with technology it’s significantly worse. We have massive interconnectedness of systems built on an extremely rapidly changing foundation of technology. But more than that, technology is now transforming our private and public lives so quickly that we can hardly make sense of any of it at a personal level, let alone a public policy level. And there seems to be no way for legislation to keep pace unless we change the discussion there from specific technologies instead to principles of how we want to build and evolve our society.

And I just don’t see how that kind of conversation can happen right now.

I see how to defeat SOPA, more or less. But it’s more lobbying, more rhetoric, more Capitol Hill influence. And I think that all of that stuff ultimately corrupts industries that use it. I know this is not a new objection, and I’m sure that there have been people in every industry forever who have made this point.

So I think most of what I wanted to write on Friday is this: I desperately hope we can (1) defeat SOPA and more importantly (2) figure out a way to have useful technology policy discussions that can inform both our legistatures and law enforcement agencies. This isn’t the last law that will be technically poor and will impinge on civil liberties. There will be more, and they’ll come up more and more frequently as increasing portions of our society get disoriented by and disrupted by new technology.

We shouldn’t rely on symmetric (and corrupting) lobbying efforts to make things better; we’ll just get more of the same crummy situation we’ve got.

What I think we really need to figure out is how to help our leadership in government act and think in a more agile way, informed by more of our citizenry. More like the web, in a lot of ways. (Ed Lee’s announcement of an SF partnership with Code for America is a start.)

Maybe impossible, a pipe dream. But that’s the target I think we should be setting for ourselves, not just defeating a crappy, misinformed bill.

Photo by Markus Spiske

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