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

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.)