PIPA/SOPA: Not good for anybody's health

17 Jan 2012 · By Anant Narayanan

Wikipedia, Google, Reddit and several other major sites are protesting the PIPA/SOPA legislation by either completely blacking out their sites or by modifying their front pages to inform their visitors of this harmful legislation that the MPAA is trying get the U.S. Congress to pass. I’m proud that Mozilla will be also be participating in the ‘internet strike’ tomorrow!

I’ve rarely discussed politics on my blog, and as an Indian citizen I am particularly helpless to do anything about U.S. legislation. Mitchell and many others have already posted level-headed arguments on why PIPA/SOPA isn’t going to help anyone. However, this response from the MPAA’s chief executive Chris Dodd (who is, notably, a former US Senator) really irks me:

Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging.

It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.

A so-called “blackout” is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this “blackout” to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.

The MPAA has, in the past, used its “power” to enact legislation that makes it illegal to manufacture DVD players that allow lawful, paying consumers to skip the FBI warning shown at the beginning of DVDs. The MPAA is now using that very same “power” and political clout to enact PIPA/SOPA. It is plainly hypocritical that the MPAA would call Google and Wikipedia irresponsible for displaying accurate information on their own websites.

Furthermore, the MPAA calls out for “co-operation” from technology companies on the matter of piracy. I am at a loss to understand why Google or any other technology company should spend even a cent of their hard-earned money on solving a problem for the MPAA. Why didn’t the MPAA use its enormous cash pile on technology that would enable them to profit from evolving technology instead of spending it all on lobbying a bill that threatens the Internet’s very existence?

The retort from the MPAA is that they’re not against the Internet, just piracy. However, that’s exactly where the problem lies. The PIPA/SOPA bills as currently drafted would give the MPAA (a private entity, mind you) the overarching power to shut down any website, without legal recourse, all in the name of combating piracy. Even if I trust the executives at the MPAA to not abuse that power, I do not fool myself into thinking that there will be no mistakes at all. Taking down a website for no real legal reason, even temporarily, is just not worth it - especially when the end goal is to let the MPAA make an extra million dollars.

Thankfully, the Internet is not designed to let any single entity obtain that much power (one could note that it is that distributed nature of the Internet that makes it so successful). Even if the bill is enacted, it will not prevent people from being able to reach these “rogue” websites that publish pirated content. Consumers will still be able to reach websites not hosted in the U.S. (as most of them are) via their direct IP address, and site owners can always be a step ahead by registering new domain names if they choose to. Not to mention, the Streisand Effect is likely to swing into action, further fueling the trend of people visiting rogue websites for pirated content. For example, it is trivial to write an add-on for Firefox and other browsers that would bypass the DNS “blacklisting” technique PIPA and SOPA propose to implement. There is no way that the MPAA, the U.S. Government, or any single entity for that matter, can stay on top of thousands of such work-arounds.

The technology companies and architects of the internet have openly informed the MPAA about the fallacies of the bill (something that they couldn’t figure out for themselves); for the MPAA to expect any more “co-operation” from them is futile.

Nobody in their right mind has ever said that piracy is not a problem. However, the benefits that the Internet brings to humanity is far too much to let a private corporation endanger it just so it can continue to profit. In the long run, for any corporation to stay in business, it must adapt to evolving technology. Digital goods are just not the same as physical objects, bits have no colour. The companies that realize this fundamental, unchangeable truth and try to capitalize on technology are the ones who will ultimately succeed, not the ones who try to fight it. In the physical realm, we don’t outlaw things that brings a lot more good to society even if you are able to do a few bad things with it (though increasingly governments seem to punish the masses in the name of fighting a few bad apples; which is also no doubt a very troubling phenomenon). I hope the MPAA will use its power and money to figure out how it can profit from technology in a way that preserves the founding principles of the internet, for its own sake, or it won’t be too long before someone who does replaces them.