As another year meets us, another glorious threat to the livelihood of the World Wide Web rears its ugly head. Unlike those that came before it, however, this new threat is not in danger of simply dissolving to the cries of public opinion.
This time there is a real danger of digital catastrophe, with the only question being how we will rebuild the net in the wake of hurricane SOPA.
The Stop Online Piracy Act may seem harmless at a brief glance, intended only to deter those who would otherwise steal copyrighted content for their own personal consumption. It also works on the second front of protecting the interests of intellectual property owners, but even some of those are lashing out against the bill.
The real meat of the bill allows the U.S. law enforcement officials greater power in their legislative battles against online piracy. It gives them the ability to force search engines, ISPs and even other websites to block out any sites that the government feels is ‘enabling or facilitating online piracy and theft.’
That is the point that the bill becomes highly poisonous to our modern way of life. Entire digital acres of the Internet are devoted to sharing, mashing, mixing, and trashing copyrighted material for mass consumption, in the name of satire, humour and good old-fashioned trolling. Should a SOPA-like bill pass, we would cease to see most content that sites like Youtube are comprised of in their entirety. We would be left with our pick of official movie trailers, video blogs and Black-Eyed Peas “music” videos.
While I agree that piracy in the form of movie and television streaming has gotten a bit out of hand, given that I can watch entire seasons of my favourite shows for free within the top three Google searches, this measure is far too all-encompassing to fight such a minor battle. A revised bill should be put forth to combat websites that explicitly host or enable blatant piracy, but the SOPA bill in its current form is too volatile to co-exist with free speech.
There are arguments to support even the anti-business sentiments that some feel are going to emerge from a purportedly pro-business bill. Web experts on the whole seem to believe that digital media organizations, and even some non-media-centric jobs on the net would be at risk to lose all outside funding, as most investors would back out in fear of encountering later legal troubles.
The main argument that resonates with me the most is the idea that combating piracy directly is never a sensible decision, as the costs are often too high for the return. The amount of resources it would require to investigate and prosecute an offender through sites like Google and individual ISPs would far outweigh the cost and time spent by any one individual, who can whip together an identical site in his or her free time. You can see the same effect in PC gaming, where more often than not, paying customers are the ones that are frustrated with restrictive anti-piracy measures, such as activation limits and online-only access. In the meantime pirates and the hacking/modding community as a whole usually removes the anti-piracy measures from their copies of the game for uninterrupted, illegal fun.
Resources are better allocated towards giving paying customers a better experience, making them feel like they are getting their money’s worth. I’m sorry to say this, record companies, but the average consumer does not feel that twenty dollars is a fair price for a mass-produced album that only really has three songs they like, when they can spend 3 bucks on the songs they want online, and for the more frugal, listen for free before they decide on YouTube or Grooveshark. If consumers are being met halfway with value expectations, then piracy on the whole is less of an issue outside of the truly desperate or lazy among us.
There is a good chance this bill will pass when the American Congress returns from its winter recess, and a greater chance that, if passed, the American government will urge their northern neighbours to adopt a similar bill. There is the best chance, however, that enough people will stand in the way of such an atrocity so that it never sees the light of legal day.