You might think, especially after my last post, that I’d be in favour of something like the Stop Online Piracy Act that’s in danger of being passed into law in the US. After all, anything that helps prevent my books from being stolen has to be a good thing for me, right?
Not so. While the intention might be laudable (and there’s every indication that the agenda behind SOPA might not actually be so altruistic), this is the wrong way to address the issue. It writes censorship into the Internet at the basic level. Imagine a day when somebody (probably a spambot) posts a link to pirated content on your blog, or on your Facebook wall. Then imagine that the US government decides that, because you’re hosting that link, you’re responsible for it and should be punished. Their next step is to block all access to your site. In theory, they could even block all access to Facebook, or force Facebook to get rid of your profile. It’s not how the web is supposed to run. In fact, it’s ridiculously close to how the web is run, in places like China, where online activity is monitored and heavily censored. SOPA is the first step in making the rest of the world act like that too.
It won’t even work. Piratical websites can change their names and locations at short notice. That’s all they have to do, if they find they’ve been walled off from their public. Facebook can’t do that. Nor can Twitter. Nor can I.
This is one of the hidden-but-out-in-the-open problems with piracy. It’s costing people too much money to ignore. Even if SOPA is defeated, the hunt for a solution won’t go away, and the next attempt could have just as many traps for the average web user in it. I suspect there really isn’t a legislative way to tackle piracy with any efficiency. All that has a chance of working is restricting demand. SOPA is an attempt to force that to happen, by potentially penalising anybody even remotely implicated in the spread of illegal content. Far better would be for the millions of users who see no harm in downloading the odd movie or book or game for nothing, to stop, before we all end up paying the price.
Whether you make professional use of the Internet, or just come online to read and post stuff, the SOPA bill (and its brother-in-arms PIPA) will hurt you. If you want to read a bit more about the hows and whys, Google make a short and effective summary here. This week’s internet blackout by sites like Wikipedia seems to have had an effect on the support for SOPA in the US, which is encouraging. Until the demand for illegal content drops though, the web as we we know it will stay under threat.