My Corner of the ‘Net

Washing our hands of SOPA

Posted on | January 22, 2013 | No Comments

Now that the new congress will be convening soon, people are wondering if they’ll take another stab at introducing the infamous Stop Online Piracy Act. It was almost exactly a year ago that the RIAA and MPAA lobbies in Washington tried to pass this piece of legislation, one that provided harsher punishments for sharing, or allowing to be shared, copyrighted materials.

While this new step came as a shock to some, after some 20-odd years of online copyright combat a piece of legislation like SOPA was a fait accompli.

“Big Content”, as they are sometimes called, has been quietly stewing after their much maligned attempts to sue copyright violators over the last few years. Their earlier efforts, suing Napster, filing lawsuits against copyright violators (including suing single mothers and dead people), and forcing ISPs to hand over access logs, resulted in a variety of Public Relations nightmares. They continued in their efforts, still randomly firing off lawsuits to various file-sharing individuals, trying to make the public at large think anyone could be sued at any moment, but this “reign of terror” was largely unsuccessful.

But before they went silent after this period, their final statement on the matter talked of a “legislative solution”. This single statement by the RI/MP folks that might have well as been them shouting “Next time, Gadget! Next time!”. That’s when I knew the fight wasn’t over. And also when I realized the next battle wouldn’t happen in the courtroom, but in Congress.

The Pirate Bay

“Arrr.”

That’s where SOPA came from. With it’s vague wording and near-Orwellian overtones, it shocked the Internet with how easily its language could be used to accost any online user. It was a document that had obviously been written by non-technical people, unclear on how the Internet worked both socially and electronically.

Bloggers could be held accountable for anyone who posted copyrighted content in the comments section of their blog, the “Safe Harbor” afforded ISPs by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, meant to give the ISP hosting a site the opportunity to request the removal of copyrighted content, would be bypassed. The act even went so far as to demand search engines delete domains from their databases if they were suspected of being involved in copyright violation. And topping it all off, any suspected site would be considered a violator until they could prove otherwise, using a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to the enforcement of this law.

With the fear of these broad new regulations hanging over the Internet like a UPS of Damocles, online businesses saw a future where commercial enterprises would have to self-police on a level previously unheard of. Also technologically this legislation would be a nightmare, requiring ISPs to run legally-questionable deep-packet scans to verify if copyrighted data was traveling over its network. DNS companies, who would be given the onerous task to remove offending sites from their servers, would see American users flee to international DNS systems where encrypted (and safe) links would be available.

After this bill was announced, and its implications understood, there was an unheard of online backlash from the movers and shakers of the Internet. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and eBay to name a few all showed their support. Some blacked out portions of their websites in protest, others shut down their services completely. Vitals online activities people were used to doing on a daily basis were impacted, causing everyone on Capitol Hill who made a Google search see a blacked-out logo whenever they visited the page. Eventually, support for the bill weakened, and politicians suddenly wanted their names struck from the document, and unlikely alliances between the two parties formed to oppose the bill. Within half a day, the momentum behind the legislation was gone.

 

For the first time, Big Content had lost. Stopped by the Internet.

 

The tide had changed. Instead of getting their way as usual, the demands of the RIAA/MPAA had been hamstrung in the US congress for the first time. 15 million telephone calls and e-mails to our elected officials brought into stark contrast just how fired up the vox populi was over this issue.

With SOPA dead in the water, and the newly minted Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade act proposed as a tightly written alternative, the RI-MP group was left with little say on the next step. Their parting words were that their plan is to establish “more robust best practices and voluntary efforts to protect the work of creators and makers while promoting an Internet that works for everyone.”

So the question becomes, what will happen next?

Practices and voluntary efforts could mean many things, such as upgrading the 6-strikes rule that ISPs have “voluntarily” implemented. Or perhaps better the objective will become more effectively tracking of copyrighted materials, ideally from creation to distribution to consumer with an embedded unique identifier. That would mean any owner of media could be held responsible for it’s eventual copyright violation.

Just maybe, RI-MP has seen the light, understanding that while all this time they may have been chasing the wiley copyright violator, other companies have stepped in to make enormous profits from legal online filesharing. The iTunes store alone sold 70 million songs its first year of operation. Perhaps Big Content will face the music and evolve to embrace a new way of doing business. And with their declared attitude that for the coming year they “will be entirely focused on music licensing issues and voluntary, marketplace initiatives”, maybe we’ll see a re-emergence of an organization that accepts some leakage, knowing the sharing of content is inevitable, much the way a cassette tape recorded from the radio was once shared amongst friends (admittedly in this case there can sometimes be several thousand friends).

Time will tell how they will react. But whatever the next step of copyright enforcement ends up being, this time the Internet had a say on what happens to itself. And after proving that, it no doubt will again.

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