TUAW on SOPA and PIPA: What they are and why we're against them

Posted Jan 18th 2012 9:00AM by Chris Rawson
Filed under: Odds and ends

By now, news about two bills making their way through the US legislative approval process, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), has spread like wildfire across the Internet, along with widespread criticism of both bills.

As part of that criticism, if you're reading this on January 18, 2012 and you try to click on either of those links above, you may notice that neither of them work as expected. That's because Wikipedia, one of the most-trafficked and most well-known sites on the Internet, has pledged to "go dark" for 24 hours in protest against both bills. If you hit Google for information on the two bills that same day, you'll likely find that the Internet's most popular website is also protesting the provisions in these controversial bills.

We briefly considered following suit and taking TUAW offline during the same period, but we decided that it would be better to take the opportunity to educate our readers on the implications of these two bills, and why we think they're ill-advised.

SOPA is the US House of Representatives' version of a bill intended to "promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes." PIPA is a broadly similar bill working its way through the US Senate, with the full title "Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act." Depending on how libertarian your mindset is, this type of phrasing either sounds perfectly innocuous or like the stamping of marching boots right outside your front window.

The intent of both bills is to crack down on illegal sharing of copyrighted media content, colloquially known as "piracy," especially of films and music. Not coincidentally, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are the biggest supporters of both SOPA and PIPA; the MPAA in particular has issued a somewhat melodramatic response to the criticism of these bills.

PC World had a good overview of SOPA as far back as November -- things move slowly in the US legislature -- and Kirby Ferguson from the "Everything is a Remix" web series produced a short video, embedded below, which outlines the US Senate's similar PROTECT-IP Act, criticizing it as a lashing out against the fundamental freedom Internet users have enjoyed since day one.

Essentially, both bills are designed to increase the United States' ability to enforce US copyright law outside its own borders, since the Internet knows no national boundaries. The bills specifically mention "rogue websites" that function outside the US -- and I think we all know who some of the biggest targets are -- which the various content producers have accused of being repositories of pirated copyrighted works. Court orders against such sites would be intended to block websites, financial institutions, ad networks, and search engines from linking to or having anything to do with "infringing" sites, essentially walling them off from the rest of the Web like a cyst -- or such is the intent. [Some of the most technically problematic portions of SOPA, including the ability to DNS-blacklist offending sites, are already working their way out of the bill. –Ed.]

In reality, neither bill is likely to stem the tide of copyright violations in the slightest. The site blocking provisions in each bill are almost laughably circumventable -- in many cases, simply knowing the IP address of the offending site and inputting that rather than its URL is enough to get around the restrictions. What has the rest of the Internet (and us) up in arms are the rather Orwellian implications of these bills, which essentially amount to Internet censorship in the name of safeguarding the profitability of the entertainment industry.

SOPA and PIPA threaten to undermine the Internet and transform it into something no one wants to see. Opposition to this bill isn't coming solely from vocal, idealistic neckbeards, either; SOPA opponents include not just Wikipedia and Google, but other organizations you may recognize such as AOL, Facebook, Twitter, the Mozilla Foundation, and the White House itself.

Why the opposition? Let's take a step back and answer a question: Aside from "a series of tubes," what exactly does the Internet represent?

The Internet has arguably done more for the free expression of ideas than any other invention in human history, including the printing press. I'm sitting in a swiveling office chair in my lounge in New Zealand as I type this, and these words will find their way onto the Macs, PCs, iPads, and iPhones of tens of thousands of readers all over the world. My benevolent corporate overlords at AOL have a few basic guidelines for the things I can and cannot write here, and my fellow TUAW editors have some guidelines of their own, but other than that, I can say pretty much whatever I want with a guaranteed global audience.

That's an incredibly powerful set of circumstances, and it's one that virtually anyone with a computer and internet access can build for themselves. Anyone with a voice can broadcast that voice to virtually anyone anywhere in the world. That simply wasn't possible before the Internet; free exchange of ideas still existed, but the power to broadcast those ideas rested within the hands of a relatively smaller subset of society. That's no longer the case, and unless a rogue solar flare fries the electrical grid beyond repair, it will never be the case again.

Here's a more pertinent example with more wide-ranging implications than anything I've said on TUAW. People have debated how much influence the Internet had on the Arab Spring riots of 2011, but if the Internet was even a minor player in the organization and communication of these movements seeking democracy in countries that have never known it, that's something worth fighting for.

SOPA and PIPA are antithetical to the free expression of ideas underpinning the foundations of the Internet. The entertainment industry has been at odds with the Internet almost since its inception; the film, music, and television industries have never had customer convenience as their core principle, but rather tight control over the supply and distribution of their content. As recently as the 1960s, these three industries essentially had total dominion over the cultural landscape; with rare exceptions, you'd never see a film outside of a theater, or a television program not broadcast on one of the big three US networks, or be able to purchase for yourself a song you'd heard on the radio anywhere but inside a record store.

This was a sweet setup for the entertainment industry, but not so great for consumers. Over the years, as technological improvements have made it easier to distribute such media content -- over both sanctioned and "rogue" channels -- the balance has tipped in decidedly the other direction. With few exceptions, I can go from thinking about watching a film to actually watching it within minutes. I don't even need to have a broadcast antenna hooked up to my television in order to keep up with my favorite TV shows -- and indeed, I don't have one. Using apps on my iPhone, I can hear a new song on the radio, identify it, find it in the iTunes Store, download it, and listen to it again, almost instantly.

The entertainment industry has fought against that kind of user convenience every step of the way.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was all about trying to ban cassette tapes and VHS so that consumers couldn't record songs off the radio or movies off of broadcast TV. In the late 1990s, when DVDs and MP3 players first hit the market, the industry made sure to wrap DVDs in layers of copy protection and tried to ban digital music players (ask Apple how that one worked out).

Remember the nearly decade-long, drawn-out battle between the RIAA and the rest of Earth? It sued Napster out of existence, pursued further suits against teenagers and old ladies, and tried its damnedest to thwart Apple's efforts at digital music distribution. As recently as a few years ago, songs sold on the iTunes Store were still encumbered with DRM restrictions -- at the insistence of the major labels and against Apple's wishes -- but those restrictions have since disappeared, and the iTunes Store is now the number one seller of music in several parts of the world.

The film, television, and music industries have fought tooth and nail against technologies and distribution methods that emphasize user convenience over distributor control for the past 50 years, and they've funneled millions of dollars into Congress in order to get laws like the DMCA, SOPA, and PROTECT-IP passed. The end result of the DMCA itself has been a confusing, Balkanized landscape as far as online media distribution goes, and it hasn't affected piracy in the slightest.

For all their intentions, neither SOPA or PROTECT-IP are likely to measurably impact piracy either; instead, they will make it easier for the entertainment industry to abuse its already outlandish influence over the US government, and it will make it easier for the US government to undermine the very foundation of the Internet.

Here's how you stop piracy: You won't. Ever. There will always be people who want something for nothing, and no amount of trying is going to stop those people from looking for and finding it. Just accept it and move on.

Here's how you reduce piracy: Make it easier for people who want to access and pay for your content. That means no more arbitrary restrictions on what devices we can view it on. That means making the same content available to everyone, worldwide, simultaneously or as close to it as feasible, and at a fair price that consumers won't balk at.

No more geo-restrictions on online content -- this is the Worldwide Web. No more distribution delays to overseas territories. No more region coding on DVDs and Blu-rays. No more DRM on electronically-distributed media. And for God's sake, no more forcing me to sit through two minutes of anti-piracy propaganda every single time I insert a DVD. In short, stop punishing the people who want to pay for your "intellectual property."

Oddly enough, Apple's already provided the tools to do this, from the distribution method down to the devices the content's viewed on. But in countries like the one I live in, content makers still Don't Get It. Let's try to do the simplest thing imaginable: I want to watch the latest episode of 30 Rock. It's a show made in the States, but I live in New Zealand. And... go.

Right off the bat, I know I can't watch it on broadcast TV. Because of various Byzantine workings of the entertainment industry that I as a content consumer couldn't care less about, New Zealand won't broadcast the latest episode of a US TV show until weeks or months after its US airdate -- and that's assuming the show is aired here at all.

To the Internet! NBC.com streams episodes for free on its site... but not to me, because I don't live in the US. Hulu is the same story.

The show will find its way onto the iTunes Store a day later... but not the NZ iTunes Store, because it doesn't sell TV content. I have to switch to the US Store, which thankfully isn't as geographically limited as the rest of these digital distributors -- so long as I have my US-based credit card handy, I'm golden.

But that episode of 30 Rock will only work on a PC, Mac, or iOS device. My poor PlayStation 3, which I use as my media center, just has to sit there feeling sorry for itself unless I insert a DVD or Blu-ray instead -- but I have to make sure it's a DVD or Blu-ray from the United States, because media manufactured in New Zealand won't work on my US PS3 thanks to region coding. (I can stream media to my PlayStation, but not DRM-encumbered video like the TV shows from iTunes.)

If I want to watch a DVD made in New Zealand, I have to put it in my wife's MacBook, which has its DVD drive set to Region 4. If my wife wants to watch one of the DVDs we bought in the States on her MacBook, she's out of luck, because industry-mandated firmware encoding on her MacBook's SuperDrive will only let her switch DVD regions a set number of times before locking the drive down to whatever region she picked last.

If I want to watch a film I purchased on DVD on my iPad, according to the entertainment industry that's just tough cookies. According to my personal code of ethics and Handbrake, the entertainment industry is on the losing side of that argument.

I'm sure this is a bit of preaching to the choir, but isn't all of this more than a little ridiculous? I follow this stuff and write about it on a daily basis, yet even after reading over the past few paragraphs my head is spinning over the needless complexity of it all. And I pay for this?

Here's what a "pirate" has to do: find a magnet link to a torrent, click it, and walk away. Depending on the speed of his connection, he's probably watching Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin yuk it up about 15 minutes later -- on any device he wants, with no restrictions and no BS. Do you know how much I would pay for that kind of no-nonsense, unrestricted access to content? At least as much as basic cable costs. At least as much the iTunes Store charges for its DRM-wrapped digital bit buckets.

Instead, content producers keep finding new and improved ways of making their content more difficult to access, and they try to push through legislation like SOPA and PIPA -- wrongheaded bills that will do nothing to prevent piracy, but are exactly the foot in the door the US needs to make its version of the Internet look a lot more like the locked-down version you get in places like China, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

At the same time, I don't have much sympathy for an industry that's making hundreds of billions of dollars per year, giving a huge slice of those profits to studio and network CEOs, then complaining that teenaged pirates are stealing billions from them every year, when instead of embracing distribution methods like iTunes that make things easier for content consumers they go crying to the government and demand that basic freedoms be curtailed in the name of (theoretically) greater profits for themselves.

The day the entertainment industry makes it simple for consumers in every corner of the world to have easy, equal, and simultaneous access to content, at a fair price, and with the ability to view it anywhere at any time without restrictions, watch how far the piracy rate drops. That initial drop is as good as it's ever going to get. You can write the rest off forever, because those are the people who were never going to pay for your content no matter what you did, and no amount of legislation is ever going to change that.

In the meantime, stop punishing the rest of us. We need more freedom, not less.

Photo: Paul Stevenson | flickr cc

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