SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

Summary: The Stop Online Piracy Act skirmish is just the latest ham-handed attempt to regulate something moving too fast to be regulated, says outspoken author and activist Cory Doctorow.


You can’t legislate morality, and you can’t legislate technology. The latest word on SOPA, the controversial “Stop Online Piracy Act” anti-pirating legislation which could authorize the shutdown of sites that are accused of copyright infringement, is that it is on the way to being shelved. An outcry from leading online companies, technology industry activists — along with a statement from the White House that it will not support the act — may temporary put this ill-conceived attempt to legislate digital rights on temporary hiatus.

SOPA is just the latest episode in a string of ham-handed attempts to impose legislation and regulations on the fast-changing world of information technology and digital content. Recently, outspoken science fiction author and activist Cory Doctorow provided insights on the challenges with legislating technology (video below), and attempts to modernize copyright laws.  (Full transcript available.) The problem, he says, is that attempts to regulate digital content usually quickly get usurped — sometimes within days — by technology workarounds. Plus, such laws and regulations end up being the handiwork of lobbies and special interest groups, versus something that makes sense in a highly virtualized world.

Copyright laws and agreements such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty, passed by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization, no matter how well-intentioned, have not kept up with fast-paced technology developments that made it easier and easier to copy digital media. As Doctorow put it:

“These laws would create more problems than they could possibly solve; after all, these were laws that made it illegal to look inside your computer when it was running certain programs, they made it illegal to tell people what you found when you looked inside your computer, they made it easy to censor material on the internet without having to prove that anything wrong had happened; in short, they made unrealistic demands on reality and reality did not oblige them. After all, copying only got easier following the passage of these laws — copying will only ever get easier!”

More recent struggles involving the recording and film industries are only the beginning — and perhaps mildest phases of the copyright battles, Doctorow adds. Imagine the issues that may arise with “user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers.”

As a result, the copyright and digital rights battles will inevitably shift to industries with even more clout with legislators than Hollywood or publishers, he predicts. “Every one of them will arrive at the same place — ‘can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?’”

Many laws and regulations are designed to incorporate viewpoints from a number of disciplines. In the end, for most areas, lawmakers “often do manage to pass good rules that make sense, and that’s because government relies on heuristics — rules of thumbs about how to balance expert input from different sides of an issue.” However, while most laws and regulations seek to remedy a problem with a specific fix, it doesn’t apply too well to information technology environments:

“Saying ‘fix the Internet so that it doesn’t run BitTorrent,’ or ‘fix the Internet so that no longer resolves,’ sounds a lot like ‘change the sound of busy signals,’ or ‘take that pizzeria on the corner off the phone network,’ and not like an attack on the fundamental principles of internetworking…. So, our regulators go off, and they blithely pass these laws.. There are suddenly numbers that we aren’t allowed to write down on the Internet, programs we’re not allowed to publish, and all it takes to make legitimate material disappear from the Internet is to say ‘that infringes copyright.’ It fails to attain the actual goal of the regulation; it doesn’t stop people from violating copyright, but it bears a kind of superficial resemblance to copyright enforcement — it satisfies the security syllogism: ’something must be done, I am doing something, something has been done.’ And thus any failures that arise can be blamed on the idea that the regulation doesn’t go far enough, rather than the idea that it was flawed from the outset.”

Ultimately, just as democracies entrust the reins of government to well-informed citizens, the only way to keep technology on the up-and-up is to enable users to police themselves. Attempting to keep up with a patchwork of laws and regulations is unsustainable, Doctorow says:

“The latest generation of lawful intercept technology can covertly operate cameras, mics, and GPSes on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices. Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policy on them, to examine and terminate the processes that run on them, to maintain them as honest servants to our will, and not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks. And we haven’t lost yet, but we have to win the copyright wars to keep the Internet and the PC free and open.”

(Cross-posted at SmartPlanet Business Brains.)

Topics: Government US, Browser, Government

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  • RE: SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

    So just because there is no perfect solution to piracy, we should just give up on stopping it? We should just trust the pirates to police themselves? Wow, what a great solution -- we should apply the same solution to other unsolvable problems:

    1. There's no perfect solution to theft, so stop enforcing "anti-theft" laws, and trust the thieves to police themselves.

    2. There's no perfect solution to assault, murder and rape, so stop enforcing laws against assault, murder & rape. We should trust thugs, murderers and rapists to police themselves.

    3. etc.

    This is great -- I can see infinite possibilities in applying this "solution" . . .
    • RE: SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

      @fgoodwin@... <br><br>No one is suggesting that we do nothing. The first thing you do is enforce existing laws. The next thing you do is enact laws that are well thought out, that include input from various points of view, that have had thier pros and cons weighed. <br><br>What you don't do is enact a law that allows some one to accuse another of theft, assault, rape or murder (IP piracy) which gets them thrown in jail with out do process... that is with out the accuser proving that the accused has beyond reasonable doubt actually done what he is accused of. That is how our system works and it is how it should work for in cases of IP piracy and theft.
    • Lucky you

      I found your note totally offensive, and I have asked that it be removed and that you be banned.

      I doubt that either of those things will happen, but that's only because we haven't passed any imperfect laws lately.
      Robert Hahn
  • RE: SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

    The issue of piracy is not near as bad as the RIAA and MPAA would have you believe. The figures they quote as lost income are totally bogus, as most of the people that received the pirated material would not have purchased the items at the price set by the industry; they would have just found a cheaper method of entertainment. In addition, we know that this will not cause the collapse of the industry, unless they refuse to change the business model they use to match the reality of modern technological advances. They had the same arguments when VCRs and cassette tapes came out, saying that their industries would be destroyed. In hindsight, we can see that their industries profited more than ever after these technologies hit the market, but only after they embraced the technologies and learned to use them in a way that consumers found acceptable.
    • RE: SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

      That's precisely right! I remember very well when videotape rental shops first started popping up (long before there were national chains such as Blockbuster), and the MPAA, Universal, MGM, et al, were screaming at the tops of their lungs, so to speak, how these rentals were violating their copyrights and would doom their sales, etc. But the simple fact was that most of the big movies were being released on VHS (and/or Beta, in the early days) at prices ranging from $59-$79, EACH, or more, and VERY FEW people were willing to pay those prices, anyway... But RENTAL stores were buying them IN DROVES, and the rental stores were popping up like mushrooms.

      It took a year or two, but eventually the industry realized how many $$$ they were making from sales to rental outlets, and the increased sales volume also brought prices down to the $30 or so price point, making purchases more "palatable" to the average consumer, and they came to realize that some consumers would rent a movie and if they really liked it would then buy it.

      Much the same is true with the digital issues. Most of the folks who will pirate will never pay much for content, anyway. Those who pirate and attempt to copy and sell should be sought out, prosecuted and imprisoned for LONG TERMS. But many who, perhaps, obtain digital copies they didn't pay for will decide they want to buy "the real thing" if it's something they actually want.

      On the flip side, something like this SOPA law can potentially create such a legal quagmire on the internet it could literally be unrecognizeable compared to what it is today. This post would probably not be possible, because the website would have no way of "proving" these words are MY original content and not plaigarized from someone else. Posting your pictures on Facebook, etc. -- a thing of the past -- unless you can PROVE every single one was taken BY YOU!

      I frankly can't IMAGINE an internet like that, but SOPA would create such an internet.

      No thanks!
      Jeff Hayes
      Jeff Hayes
  • RE: SOPA: only the latest reason why technology and lawmaking don't mix

    As an end user of various forms of entertainment, I don't think SOPA/PIPA are valid pieces of legislation. Yes, I think DRM could be updated, but as the writer of this post suggests, that making it truly enforceable in an age where the information technology by-passes and out-dates any legislation created, is not terribly realistic. It's also very short-sighted to think that these laws are truly enforceable outside the US. The cuurent bills smacks of censorship bullying without due process.

    As a rule, I don't torrent movies, I'll rent first (iTunes) or watch on Netflix and sometimes I'll buy the DVDs. What I often do torrent is tv shows. My schedule is such that I work primarily nights and I don't often remember to record from my WinTv PVR, or have a chance to watch shows 'live'. Thus, torrenting allows me to download and watch when I can, and without commercials. The other reason I torrent tv shows is if they are otherwise geoblocked or time delayed by months/years (if at all aired here) because they are international shows. If I like the show, I'll buy the box set DVDs [of which I have loads], and that includes UK shows on DVD as I have players that will read PAL discs.

    Some of the shows I've gotten an interest in is because I've seen clips or fanvids of on YouTube or other such venues of show/movies that I may never have crossed my mind to check out before. And sometimes, if it's a fanvid, it's also brought me to new artists that I may never have heard before, and got me interested in BUYING that artist's music.
  • Copywrong in the USA!

    The problem is the copyright system is broken and unfair people have no respect for unjust laws. Fix the laws, restore respect, and that will stop the type of piracy that these bills target. In 1776 when you had to print and bind a book by hand and ship it by horse or boat copyright was 14 years and now that you can print a book and sell it world wide instantly it is lifetime + 70 years. A patent is 20 and trademark is 17. Also having an unregistered copyright system totally breaks the public domain and fair use system since you don't know what is in the public domain and cant contact or find the copyright owners.