As regular readers of this blog know, one of my favorite sources of online information is Wikipedia. While not perfect, this largely volunteer-maintained site is a generally reliable, up-to-date, and accurate source of many kinds of information. It is especially good for technical and scientific data where there is a general consensus of agreement, and even in controversial areas it tends to be pretty even-handed. So imagine my surprise last Wednesday when I clicked onto Wikipedia for something and was greeted instead by a blacked screen for 24 hours and a plea for me (if I was a U. S. citizen, which many Wikipedians are not) to contact my congressional representatives to protest the consideration of SOPA and PIPA.
What are SOPA and PIPA? Legislative acronyms for the Stop Online Piracy Act and the (get ready for this one) Protecting Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. If you read the second title it sounds like they want to protect online threats, not do something to stop them, but I think PIPA comes from the informal title, which is just the Protecting Intellectual Property Act. SOPA is being considered by the House of Representatives and PIPA by the Senate.
Why is Wikipedia (and many other online service providers of various kinds) so upset about these proposed laws? According to the text on the blacked-out screen, the laws pose a potentially crippling threat to the freedom of information exchange. If they were passed in their present form and the Attorney General, or a civil court, or some bureaucrat somewhere, decided that Wikipedia was an internet search engine, then it would be Wikipedia’s responsibility not to link to certain nefarious websites, the list of which the government would apparently determine. (It is not clear to this non-lawyer exactly who would enforce the acts, but you are welcome to read the 10,000-word text of SOPA yourself and figure it out if you so choose.) And if Wikipedia (or any other website falling under the jurisdiction of the act) failed to do its court-mandated duty, the court would be free to impose penalties, probably in the nature of fines and/or injunctions to stop or start doing things.
Well, right there we have a problem. One of the better aspects of the Web is the way that it has grown to its present stature largely without government aid or regulation. True, there are many problems and illegal or immoral things that go on, some of which we have discussed in this space. But overall, Internet commerce and Internet entities such as Wikipedia have behaved pretty well and do no more than reflect the general makeup of society, which is made up mostly of fairly decent people with a few bad apples here and there.
In my limited, non-lawyer view, SOPA and PIPA would try to change that by putting a huge number of Internet entities under the watchful eye of the courts. It is probably not an exaggeration to say they might create for the Internet a regulatory regime not too different from what the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was for interstate commerce, which kept all kinds of business ranging from bus companies to railroads and trucking firms under its thumb for decades. The difference is that the ICC came to pass to curb genuine piratical abuses by monopolistic railroad companies, who shook down their customers (mostly farmers) shamelessly with exploitative and discriminatory rates. And when the deregulatory fad came to pass a few decades ago, the ICC bit the dust, and with the much greater level of competition in interstate commerce that prevails today, nobody much misses it.
Nothing much like monopolistic exploitation is going on with the Internet organizations targeted by SOPA and PIPA, with the possible exception of Google. The proposed laws’ supporters claim that their only targets are the truly bad actors: the crooks who set up phony or phishing websites, those who sell pirated software, child pornographers using the Web, and so on. But from my (again) limited reading of the proposals, that judgment call is left strictly up to the lawyers enforcing the act. Once power is created, bureaucrats seem to develop an irresistible urge to use it, and so I have concluded that it would be a bad idea to pass SOPA and PIPA in their present form. And I made that opinion known to my Federal legislative representatives here in Texas.
So did several million other people, evidently, because a few days after Wikipedia and many other sites did their blackout bit, Congress announced that it was “indefinitely postponing” consideration of the bills. At the rate Congress gets truly important work done these days, that means you can forget about SOPA and PIPA unless you run out of other things to worry about first.
I am not a libertarian, and appropriate legislation to curb some of the more blatant abuses found on the Internet is a good idea if it can be enforced without an undue burden on the service providers or the public using the services. Most law enforcement has to take a “good-enough” approach, given limited resources. You want enough highway patrols to keep speeders and other vehicular misbehavior down to a reasonable level, but to get the public to obey the speeding laws 100% of the time would require something on the order of a speed-cop Reign of Terror. From my point of view, SOPA and PIPA moved too far in the Reign of Terror direction. I am sure that interested legislators will go back to the drawing board to craft something that will deal with the worst abuses without being so intrusive on the vast majority of sites and users who are behaving themselves, but I do not myself believe there is any big rush about the matter.
Reportedly, major Hollywood interests (copyright holders) were behind SOPA and PIPA, and were disappointed when the proposals went down in flames. It is a disturbing enough time for content providers these days, as file-sharing and online movies become more and more technically facile. The phrase “rent-seeking” has shown up a lot lately in editorials about how powerful business interests have influenced government so as to direct more revenue their way. One could view the SOPA-PIPA business in that light, with what fairness I’m not sure. But it looks like this time, anyway, a grass-roots effort by millions of users (admittedly led by organizations with influence, though not so much financial as merely relational) prevailed over the rent-seekers, if that is the right phrase for them. Unfortunately, Wikipedia can shut down their site for the first time in protest only once. Any more and it will get to be a drag. So the future will reveal how this continuing conflict gets resolved, if it ever does.
Sources: For those policy wonks dealing with a sleepless night or for other reasons, a website has posted the “markup” versions of both SOPA and PIPA at http://www.keepthewebopen.com/sopa and http://www.keepthewebopen.com/pipa, respectively. Though they are mostly of academic interest now, they show just how complicated modern legislation has become.