News moves fast, especially when it’s news about the Internet. Between the writing and publication of this essay, it’s possible that the Stop Online Piracy Act will be quietly killed in its House committee. On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January, as I’m thinking and writing about SOPA in the thick of the web-wide protest against it, the bill seems already bound to fail.
We’ve heard a lot about the costs (e.g., greater security costs; greater potential liability) that would result from adopting SOPA. I won’t deny that those costs exist, that they are probably huge, and that they would put some tech companies out of business or prevent new businesses from forming. As some have pointed out, sites that provide user-generated content (i.e., sites that facilitate the uploading of both copyrighted and non-copyrighted material, such as YouTube or Facebook) would face new, particularly high costs under SOPA, because they would have to ensure that their networks were not being used for piracy.
But there are costs in the present system, as well. Specifically, the bill is intended to address the costs of piracy—costs that are imposed on content creators against their will. To recite these costs here is, or ought to be, unnecessary. Lost revenue, even when it is revenue that would be due to intermediary license-holders, makes it less profitable and more difficult for creative people to create things for us, and for smart people to learn things and pass their knowledge on to us.
What the legislation would do, if I understand correctly, is impose additional costs on tech companies in order to alleviate the piracy costs currently borne by content creators. So here’s my question for the SOPA-haters: what’s wrong with shifting those costs? If it puts tech companies out of business by forcing them to bear their own economic externalities, I say: bring it on. Any company that is forced out of business when it’s forced to bear its own operating costs is presumably a company that shouldn’t be in business (unless there is a really good public policy reason to the contrary).
I wouldn’t want the government to allow a waste disposal company to profit from dumping trash next to my brother’s home, without compensating him for his loss in property value. The trash guys, not my brother, should pay that bill. I fail to see how the Internet is any different. In the garbage case, a tort action can be brought against the offender, and damages can be recovered. But in the arena of copyright protection on the Internet, traditional remedies have proven inadequate, so I’m going to start with the presumption that some kind of drastic action is required, if we want the web’s scofflaws to better discharge their social responsibilities. And I use the word “responsibilities” intentionally. Don’t we all bear some moral responsibility, if not legal responsibility, to ensure that things that belong to us are not being used to harm someone else? And what is wrong with making that moral responsibility a legal responsibility as well?
Now, maybe SOPA is imposing costs that are far greater than the costs it alleviates. Some parts of the bill are very poorly crafted, or so I’m told. But for the most part, that’s not the argument I’m hearing today. Too much of the SOPA discourse boils down to the attitude that “we’re entitled to build whatever kind of networks we want, without interference from law enforcement, regardless of the effects on other people, as long as we’re not the ones technically breaking the law.” If today’s anti-SOPA messages were a starting place from which we could debate how much value we put on websites that provide user-generated content, I would have little to complain about. But it seems that the anti-SOPA messages serve not as a conversation-starter but as a line in the sand: they are declarations of the absolute value of a particular vision of the Internet, which shall not be infringed.
I’ll admit that this is something of a straw man, but that’s part of my point. It frightens me that something that is not a freedom-versus-tyranny issue can be so readily painted as such, and so mindlessly accepted and regurgitated as such, by such a huge number of over-connected Facebookers and webcomic readers. Our language of constitutional rights is going to unravel if we start treating the issues here as if they were on a level with freedom of religion and the freedom of the press. Once we start calling copyright enforcement “censorship” instead of “copyright enforcement,” we start to forget what censorship really means. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and all that.
The web’s would-be libertarians are superficially competent in the language of freedom versus fascism, but it’s probably been a while since most of them actually read Nineteen Eighty-Four: fascism is bad, Orwell taught us, but fascism is also a mass movement. When I see everyone getting on board with a policy position as if it were a matter of universal common sense and decency, it scares me a lot. Online social networks, and the virtual peer pressure that goes with them, accelerate mass movements while making them more powerful and less thoughtful. More generally, the twentieth century showed how technology can accelerate tyranny. I have yet to be convinced that it can create any meaningful kind of liberty that did not exist before in a form both more nuanced and more authentic.
Meanwhile, the Upstanding Citizens of the Internet continue to pat themselves on the back for having shown us how terrible life is without Wikipedia. The funny thing is, I really didn’t mind spending a day without user-generated content. I went outside and read a book that was written about nineteen hundred years ago. When I came to a part of the book on which I wanted more information, I walked back inside to my bookshelf and picked up a gloriously and densely researched desk reference called “The Literature Lover’s Companion.” Another question led me to peruse a volume of an actual, physical encyclopedia, with static and non-hyperlinked text, that had been carefully compiled and edited by leading scholars in the 1970s and passed down by my family. I got lost along the way and ended up reading about a war between Chile and Bolivia. You can learn something new and unexpected just as easily on paper as online.
If the anti-SOPA blackout was supposed to make me grateful for the miserable web-driven existence which has been allotted to me, it failed. Instead, it has made me even more dangerously aware that there are some things I really can live without—and maybe some things we can’t live with.