Why congress is missing the point on SOPA & PIPA (the internet censorship bill)
January 13, 2012
Regardless of whether your elected politicians are in favor of or opposed to SOPA & PIPA (aka the internet censorship bill), odds are that they’ve arrived at their position because they think it’s best for the economy.
The internet censorship bill protect the livelihoods of middlemen, who depend on the ability to sell information. The internet has caused the costs of information to drop to zero, and the aims of the censorship bill are to raise the costs of that information back up to where those middlemen may again have a job. These are jobs that must be cut. Those employees will be free to go be productive for other companies that actually add value to the economy. The internet censorship bill would re-route information away from the most efficient path, and towards middlemen, so that those middlemen can charge a percent.
It’s as if our politicians want to replace vending machines with people, in the name of helping the economy.
Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prudent and honest man, eloquently opposes SOPA & PIPA, because he is
“ …not willing to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth.”
It should be noted that “stifling” free speech is an understatement. The internet censorship bill would make it a felony to stream certain videos. The importance of this classification cannot be understated. Felons don’t have rights. They can’t vote. They can’t own guns. They can’t participate in society in the same ways as normal citizens. You would be a felon for watching the NBA for free your own home.
Foreshadowing profound divisions within the Democratic party, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supports the internet censorship bill, and for the very same reasons that Wyden opposes it. Her key aim is to “protect copyright holders” and help the economy.
Technology is our world’s biggest issue, because it is the key to literally every other issue we have. But most politicians, like Feinstein, who supports SOPA & PIPA, don’t even think that technology is an issue at all (see image).
Feinstein’s opinion on SOPA shows a complete lack of understanding of the way the internet works, or even whether the law will be enforceable. Feinstein, and most politicians, think that the internet censorship bill are routine, common sense legislation, and they haven’t given it a second thought.
A majority of our nation’s politicians support SOPA & PIPA, including Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.:
“Piracy denies individuals who have invested in the creation and production of these goods a return on their investment thus reducing the incentive to invest in innovative products and new creative works. The end result is the loss of American jobs. Intellectual property is one of America’s chief job creators and competitive advantages in the global marketplace, yet American inventors, authors, and entrepreneurs have been forced to stand by and watch as their works are stolen by foreign infringers beyond the reach of current U.S. laws.” [source]
See? The reason you’re going to be classified as a felon for streaming the wrong video is because it’s “good for jobs.” The reason you’ll be forced into self-censorship, out of fear of having your accounts frozen, is because “foreign infringers are beyond the reach of US laws.”
To further dissect Goodlatte’s opinion, he’s made a key mistake: information is not a good. Information, unlike apples or furniture, can be copied an infinite number of times at zero cost. Because of this, there are fundamentally different forces at work when we talk about information.
There’s a serious lack of connection between the two sides of this debate. Both sides agree that piracy is bad, and that innovation is good. The supporters fall short in their explanation for why it should be a felony to stream videos, and why the government should have unilateral authority to shut down, and therefore censor, any website.
Though politicians like these may prefer to simplify an economy down to the number of raw jobs, it’s more a question of which jobs, and for whom?
Tech jobs will vanish, no one questions this. Supporters of the internet censorship bill have even vowed political war against the opposition, accusing opposers like Google and Facebook of piracy!
There is a serious, profound disconnect: the author of the bill, Lamar Smith (R-TX) simply accuses the opposition of being “…against American consumers and businesses.” The ignorance is blinding.
Supporters of the internet censorship bill, like Warner Brothers, are worried because they make information for a living, and that information is being shared and downloaded en masse, for free. Warner Brothers isn’t like any other copyright holder; they didn’t make a new kind of light bulb, they don’t bring fish back from the ocean, and they don’t harvest grain from the Earth. They make information.
The physical properties of information
Information can, unlike fish, grain, or light bulbs, be copied an infinite number of times at zero monetary cost. In this way, it’s not just so simple as “protecting copyright holders,” because over the decades and centuries, we’ve allowed subtle changes to occur in the way we award copyrights and patents. We’ve allowed individuals to own information.
This is actually a very philosophically nuanced decision, and it can’t be made lightly – or without discussing all of even the most easily foreseeable implications, of which there are two listed below.
First, there is the fact that the flow of information can’t physically be stopped. It’s like passing a law against scratching your knee. There’s absolutely no way to accurately and precisely enforce the internet censorship bill. There are already “patches” that will immunize users against PIPA & SOPA! There’s no way to enforce the internet censorship bill, which makes the law profoundly and extremely dangerous.
Enforcement, instead, will likely happen by way of the proverbial baseball bat, not the scalpel. Entire websites will be shut down with neither warning nor reason (aside from the boilerplate “Your accounts have been frozen due to violations of the law – US PENAL CODE 2012 SOPA & PIPA”). When the government has the power to shut down information like this, they change that information. The internet censorship bill will be the chisel of the police, and they will sculpt American opinions with unprecedented power.
The criminalization of everyday behavior is an objective step toward tyranny
When everyone is a criminal, and when governments or corporations decide on whom to enforce the law, their power will be absolute. The government already has the power to search your internet browsing history. Have you streamed the “wrong” video? Will you be hunted down and branded as a felon?
Second, it gives, to one person, absolute power to control the information of our world. The Pentagon’s hacker team, in all estimations, will out-hack even the most coordinated offensive from Lulzsec or Anonymous. They possess the power to shut down anyone, anywhere, at any time. Any information could be erased by the US government. With the ability to sculpt the information of our world, there would literally be no way for people to communicate effectively.
Case study: the Music Industry
The story of the music industry is being played out more slowly for the movie industry, but with equal effect. Music is available everywhere for free download. Call it piracy if you want, but it’s just the fact that information is free. Listeners like it, because they get to listen to more music. Musicians like it, because they have a bigger audience. It’s the record labels, which thrived in the 20th century when information was expensive, which have suffered the most. But they’ve suffered because they’ve been obsoleted, left behind by technological advancement like so many other once-successful operations. Further, new companies like Pandora, Grooveshark, and Spotify, have carved out ways to make a profit in the new landscape, and these companies create plenty of jobs. Record label layoffs are far more than offset by hires in new companies and the raw value created for the economy.
The movie industry will go the same route, but they’re fighting. Movies and video will thrive without the internet censorship bill. Consumers will enjoy a better product at lower costs. New companies will employ workers laid off by 20th century movie-makers. Film will thrive in the era of informational freedom.
Conservative, laissez faire economic demands opposition to SOPA & PIPA
To apply the principles of conservative economics, we should let the markets do as they wish. Nature needs to take its course, and we need to let the unfit companies of our economy perish, so that they can make room for more economically fit ventures. It would be the biggest regulatory over-step of our generation if the government suddenly seized the ability to sledge-hammer any website at any time. If you think that the government should mind its own business and let productive people continue to be productive, then you oppose the internet censorship bill.
Information, at its core, is free
It’s part of what makes this world great. When something can be copied out an infinite number of times at zero cost, it’s free. By definition. It’s a very simple concept – distrust anyone who tells you otherwise.
It’s impossible to charge money for something that can be copied an infinite number of times.
The SOPA bill protects the jobs of middlemen in the music industry. Sales jobs will be saved. Jobs devoted to re-routing workflow away from the most efficient path, towards themselves, so they can take a percent, will be saved.
But like all decisions, there are costs. Tech jobs will vanish. Artistic jobs will vanish. An era of creative oppression would begin.
Economic health is best measured by productivity. Value. Created benefit to society. The SOPA bill raises the costs of information (which put a further burden on the weakening middle class), slows innovation, and is supported neither by creators, nor users, of content, but only by the middlemen whose livelihoods depend on the ability to charge money for information.
The internet censorship bill may be well intended, with the noble aim of stopping piracy. But it goes far beyond that, by giving the absolute power, to any unelected government official, to censor the internet. It would be a felony to stream videos. Creativity would be incorporated and owned by the wealthiest 1% of our society. The internet censorship bill would be catastrophic for the tech industry, and for everyone.
All of truth is manifest in our world only through the acute combination of awareness and power. Only with both awareness and power can truth obtain a foothold in our world. Without awareness, there is oppression, hate, war, suffering, and then nothing.
Only in the presence of awareness and power can truth be strong in our world.