[Update 2011-12-06: Jennifer Novotny's article in the Stony Brook Press is now up.]
We got a question from Jennifer Novotny, a student at Stonybrook University in New York, about the slow-rolling disaster that is the E-PARASITE/SOPA bill in the U.S. Congress. There are many bad things to say about this bill, most of which have already been said elsewhere (we give some links below). But with Jennifer Novotny's permission, we're sharing her original question and our response, which focuses on the collateral damage this law would do to the Internet itself, and on the general impossibility of ever successfully implementing the kinds of restrictions Congress is attempting here.
Jennifer E Novotny writes:
>I'm writing an article for a journalism class on the subject of
>digital piracy in relation to the recently proposed Stop Online Piracy
>Act. I hoped you would be able to answer a couple of questions for me.
>For instance, do you believe the bill, if passed, would actually have
>any affect on piracy? I know there is a lot of debate and the idea
>that the bill would "break the internet" and I wondered what your
>specific opinions were on this matter.
>I look forward to your response,
Hi, Jen. Thanks for writing.
No, the bill won't have any noticeable effect on so-called "piracy". It will just push people who copy into using more and more sophisticated circumvention techniques and technologies.
That includes both legal and illegal copying, by the way, because law enforcement has never been able to reliably distinguish between them by automated means -- after all, both activities are just copying. It's very similar to how there can never be a reliable automatic means of differentiating between "good speech" and "bad speech".
The bill would do much more to stop everyday exercise of civil liberties than it would do to stop unauthorized copying (which we do not believe should be unauthorized anyway, but in any case it should not be an excuse to interfere with the already-too-limited range of authorized copying our laws still permit).
For example, the bill allows web sites to be cut off from the Internet, without any meaningful adversarial due process, based on the activity of a minority of a site's users. A more subtle problem with the bill is that it undermines the Internet's Domain Name System. By cutting sites off in the current central DNS "address book", it encourages more people to use the already-existing alternative DNS address books (from which the targeted site would not have been deleted). So not only would the bill do nothing to stop the alleged problem it is trying to solve, it would also -- if that clause were invoked frequently enough -- gradually encourage the fragmentation of the Internet.
Even if one thinks that illegal copying is an infection that has to be cured (which we emphatically don't agree with), SOPA's solution is analogous to curing it by removing the patient's circulatory system!
Two excellent articles about SOPA:
[and a third added later: http://www.itworld.com/security/223845/piracy-bill-could-waylay-floss-projects]
Hope this helps,
In followup correspondence, I asked her: "Are you planning to release your article under a free license? (I realize it's for a class, but that doesn't mean it can't be released if you want it to be.)" She said she was just working toward the class due date and hadn't really contemplated it yet. I wrote back:
I realize the question came out of left field :-). But we always ask it, because frequently journalists or researchers write us to get material for an article they're going to publish... And naturally, given our mission, we'd like to point out to them that they can put that article out under an open license that allows re-use, etc.
It's a way of bringing home the fact that these ideas are not theoretical, but rather are something that anyone can do.
If you're not already swamped with readings, this article (a couple of pages log) explains some of the real-world effects of releasing things under open copyright:
Of course, someone who's worried about their Internet being cut off or their web site being removed from the global Domain Name System would be less likely to subtitle, translate, and otherwise re-use works, even when there might be lots of reason to believe that the original author would be fine with it. Laws like E-PARASITE/SOPA increase the risks of being culturally active. If the bill's purpose is to drive production out of the hands of actual creators and into the hands of corporations that can afford whole legal departments, it's a good start.
Free Culture is something you do. The more of us do it, the more obvious it will be to others that laws like E-PARASITE/SOPA have no place in a free world.