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SOPA and PIPA Are Only a Skirmish

SOPA and PIPA Are Only a Skirmish

 

On Wednesday, January 18, 2012, Wikipedia initiated a 24-hour blackout of its own site in order to protest and raise awareness about the SOPA and PIPA bills being debated in the US Congress and Senate, respectively. Though they’ve been leading the charge, the Wikipedians haven’t been alone. I visited many of my favorite sites throughout the day only to discover they, too were symbolically self-censoring. Not that I needed the reminder. I’ve lived behind the Great Firewall of China — I know how frustrating it is.

Victory in an ongoing battle

I agree these bills are bad news. But according to my most trusted source on copyright issues, this is only the beginning, not the end. While many of us were enjoying our Christmas holidays, Cory Doctorow was at the 28th Annual Chaos Communications Congress in Berlin, warning of things to come.

For those who don’t know him, Cory is an activist, journalist and socially-conscious science fiction writer. He has spent years working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reporting on copyright, free speech and digital rights issues and writing excellent novels. And in a little less than an hour, he convincingly made the case that SOPA is just the opening skirmish in a much larger war.

If you don’t have an hour to spare, you can pretty much get his whole argument in an analogy he makes about halfway through:

If I turned up and said “well, everyone knows that wheels are good and right, but have you noticed that every single bank robber has four wheels on his car when he drives away from the bank robbery? Can’t we do something about this?”, the answer would of course be “no”. Because we don’t know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications but useless to bad guys. . . .

But, if I were to show up in that same body to say that I had absolute proof that hands-free phones were making cars dangerous, and I said, “I would like you to pass a law that says it’s illegal to put a hands-free phone in a car”, the regulator might say “Yeah, I’d take your point, we’d do that”. And we might disagree about whether or not this is a good idea, or whether or not my evidence made sense, but very few of us would say “well, once you take the hands-free phones out of the car, they stop being cars”.

The difficulty, he goes on to say, is in applying this same way of thinking to computers and networks. You might think that individual programs on a computer, or individual websites on a network are like hands-free phones. If you have a problem with something, like Napster, IP-blockers, BitTorrent (both the program and the sites), you just get rid of them. But you can’t, not without fundamentally changing your personal computer and the Internet as they currently function to an entirely different form.

Solution too radical

All computers are general-purpose devices. If someone can write some code for something, your computer can run it. If legislators want to prevent you from doing so, they can’t simply order manufacturers to stop attaching file-sharing parts to your computer. There’s no such part. Instead they must install restrictive software to prevent users from seeing what their computer is doing, watch everything they’re doing and interfere when a user-initiated operating command is deemed inappropriate.

In the same way, all computer networks are is the exchange of data. There is no functional difference between legal or illegal, appropriate or immoral data. There’s no way to  simply remove fora for illegal data exchange. That would require watching our data and sending in the troops when “distasteful” or “illegal” content appears.

In other words, cripple our computers with malware and strip our networks of privacy.

Privacy v security: not a new issue

Cory’s talk is based on technologies that were not a significant part of our everyday lives a mere two decades ago. Yet the general problem of privacy versus security is not new. Social philosopher Jeremy Bentham imagined a theoretical prison in the 18th century. The design was of a great circular wall enclosing a yard, with a much smaller circular building in the center. The prisoners would spend their time in the yard while the guards would look out from the center building. The guards have a clear view of every part of the prison yard but the prisoners cannot see the guards and don’t know where they’re looking. As a result, a small number of guards can keep a larger number of prisoners in check, since the prisoners have no idea when they are being watched.

Bentham dubbed this prison the panopticon, which means something like “all-seeing”. This was before video surveillance, and certainly before spyware or government firewalls. But the principle is the same. If you want to keep everyone in line, you have to watch everything. London’s extensive public surveillance system must take so many thousands of hours a footage per day, no one could possibly be watching it. But the information is there, if anyone ever needs to check on it.

Whether or not SOPA and PIPA go through, this is the inevitable conclusion if the current way of thinking prevails. At some point, we’ll need to have every email, every site visited, every file accessed on permanent record. Our Internet Providers will be forced to provide the information, or our government-approved malware will do it, but everything will go down in the books.

Maybe no one will ever need to look at these digital records, but if there’s any question, if a spybot sends a signal that we may be up to something, it will all have to come out. Meanwhile, we will always know that we’re potentially being watched. The panopticon, version 3.0.

The privacy aspect has received less focus than the issues of hobbled functionality during this most recent digital media debate, but it’s certainly at least as grim a prospect. You don’t have to be doing something wrong to have a problem with such an invasion. I daresay I’m not alone in preferring my personal computer to remain personal.

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Image credit: Jeremy Bentham (1791).

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44 comments

+ add your own
6:02AM PST on Jan 21, 2012

@ Lea J.:
@ sanne M.

"In addition, did it occur to you that forcing people to work for free is a form of slavery? That is not a new idea, either. BTW, we have Musician's Unions locally, but they can do little to help us protect ourselves beyond that level."

If you have so little creativity that you don't know how to make money, I doubt the overall quality of your derivative works.


Lea J. Lea J.
12:38PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

"And while we're on the metaphor streak, let's say that if you like looking a my tree in my yard, you do not have a right to cut it down and bring it into your yard."

I'd like to see you cut math in half. If I like looking at a tree in your yard and plant a seed of the same species, is it copyright infringement? If you could have your cake and eat it too, and that cake be 30 flavors simultaneously would you like that? Because that's how a world made out of math works. Once again, conflating information with physical reality is a false dichotomy.


Lea J. Lea J.
12:35PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

@ sanne M.

"It is true that artists, once again, will be the ones to pay the price for pirating. How can you sit there and openly confess that the public has so disenfranchised artists that they are being forced to accomodate a "new reality"? If people had not stolen their property for so long, this would not be happening at all. That is the cause of this problem now. In otherwords, the public is now a theiving mob that is out of control."

2:24AM PST on Jan 21, 2012

I couldn't agree more,thanks.

12:28AM PST on Jan 21, 2012

thanks.

4:44PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

@ Lea J. Most of the people downloading content are either "test running" it, to see if they like it before purchasing it (like myself) or are people that wouldn't pay for it, anyway. This "piracy" stuff isn't new. I remember being younger, and bootlegging friends music, or video, tapes. Or even recording from the radio, or TV.

In my parents, and grandparents, generation, they would go to where a concert was, and not enter the venue. They still got to hear the music, without paying a cent.

These aren't NEW issues. They just USED to happen in the background.

Just to make it clear what side I'm on, well I'm not. Yes I download music, and movies. But if I ENJOY them enough, I purchase them. Games, too. If I think it's crap, it gets deleted. You wouldn't buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first, would you?

3:34PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

I guess this could be considered the calm before the impending storm. They need to just let it go.

2:35PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

sigh, they need to give it up, it's only more money for people who already have too much

1:54PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

thanks.

12:52PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

@ sanne M.

In addition, did it occur to you that forcing people to work for free is a form of slavery? That is not a new idea, either. BTW, we have Musician's Unions locally, but they can do little to help us protect ourselves beyond that level.

12:38PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

And while we're on the metaphor streak, let's say that if you like looking a my tree in my yard, you do not have a right to cut it down and bring it into your yard.

12:35PM PST on Jan 20, 2012

@ sanne M.

It is true that artists, once again, will be the ones to pay the price for pirating. How can you sit there and openly confess that the public has so disenfranchised artists that they are being forced to accomodate a "new reality"? If people had not stolen their property for so long, this would not be happening at all. That is the cause of this problem now. In otherwords, the public is now a theiving mob that is out of control.

My friend, I assure you, you do NOT speak for other artists! Who are you to put words into our mouths? I will speak for them because I AM one of them. Yes, they are being forced to give up income. Are you proud of that accomplishment? Shame on you. It is oppression of art by a greedy public. We ahve the conservatives on one side telling us that we should get no public funding, then we have the mob-like public on the other telling us that we will just have to adjust? You care nothing for artists, that is clear. Yes, maybe the mob will win the battle. Don't you see what you are really saying?

Find a better way to enforce copyright and intellectual property laws. But stop the mindless rationalizations, will you. Anyone with a decent IQ can understand what I am saying. Or does it bother your concience to read the truth, and you are, as people do, repressing your concience with blather to enable you to continue to violate the rights of others?

I could type into this comment the names of hundreds of artists and recording companies that

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