Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My take on SOPA

If you so much as used the internet today, you might have gotten the distinct impression that the internet is literally going to end because of SOPA.  Its opponents would say that's only a mild exaggeration.  It's easy to read the anti-SOPA offerings on Wikipedia and Google and be swayed into opposing SOPA.  They are persuasive arguments.  And at first pass, it's easy to conclude that SOPA represents a grave threat to the internet as we know it.

But there's an intellectual problem with supporting or opposing any measure before hearing every argument for or against it.  There are two sides--often many more--to any story.  As its critics accuse SOPA of being distinctly anti-internet, it's easy to go on the internet and find the ways in which SOPA is or might be bad.  What the internet has done a less good job of doing is exploring the ways in which SOPA is or might be good.  "That's because it's not," an opponent might argue; "everything about SOPA is bad."  But somebody thinks it's good.  It has sponsorship in both houses of US Congress (under the name PIPA, and with slightly differently wording, in the Senate), enjoys bipartisan support, and has extensive lobbyist funding.

As the internet becomes more riled up about what the bill might be, or might become, it's more important for supporters of SOPA to deliver their arguments clearly and rationally.  Often, SOPA is accused of being pushed by "old-media people" who "don't understand how the internet works."  It would be enlightening--and, by this point, essential--for a "new-media person" who does understand how the internet works but nevertheless supports SOPA to offer a rebuttal.  Such a person may or may not exist.  At the very least, authors and supporters of the bill need to respond quickly and specifically to the concerns raised in various parts of the internet.

Here's a paraphrase of a common example used to illustrate the perils of SOPA.  Say a Google search turned up a site that hosted pirated copyrighted content.  Under SOPA, its opponents claim, the holder of that copyright would be able to sue and get an injunction against Google.  In turn, the attorney general would be able to enact that injunction to temporarily shut Google down.  Google would then be faced with the prospects of frequent outages--clearly denying its customers the chance to use its services--or actively policing all its indexed search content, a time- and money-intensive process.

This seems bad, if it is true.  Without hearing any arguments to the contrary, I'm forced to conclude that it's both true and bad.  What this debate needs desperately is for SOPA supporters to explain whether or not that's a fair characterization of SOPA and if it is, why it is not bad.  The longer they fail to do so, the more ground their position will lose.

In the vacuum of counter-evidence that is the internet, SOPA does indeed appear threatening and dangerous.  It's possible--even likely--that all the pro-SOPA argument in the world wouldn't change that appearance.  But to snap to conclusions about what the bill might become without even having heard the argument is irresponsible.

Currently listening: "1957," Milo Greene

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