SOPA: Why the 'broken web' should stay broken

The web may not be perfect, but SOPA is a reactionary bill to a broken copyright system. One thought alone: The 'broken web' is ironically what makes it work.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) will starve the web of the oxygen that it needs, issue its marching orders and censor the U.S. web as we know it.

One finds it ironic as an outside observer, from a country that does not have freedom of speech as such, to a country that dubs itself the 'Land of the Free'.

And this is coming from someone who thought the Patriot Act was bad enough.

With the realisation that the SOPA may actually pass through Congress and become law, one has to question why the sudden shift from copyright-ownership powers, to powers in government; seemingly a slippery slope to China-style censorship endorsements?

The copyright system is broken, but so is the web. While one system needs reform, the latter should remain broken -- as long as the core principles of the web are adhered to.

The problem is: there are no rules of the web, only the rules of law. And, with a borderless, inter-connected network spanning all but about two countries on the planet, there will be fallout far-and-wide from this bill that threatens to bring online freedom of speech to an end.

(Image credit: ZDNet)

Maria Pallante, head of the U.S. Copyright Office, said:

"It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail."

Is it that copyright, although admittedly damaging to certain industries, is being used as the excuse to instigate control over the Internet?

The Internet is more than a means of displaying information. It has exploded into a rapid, uncontrolled centre for communication, a vast network of information and data that the western community has complete access to. How long can we expect governmental structures not to try and bind its citizens?

When peer-to-peer networking first gained popular traction, particularly amongst the younger tech-savvy generations, all industries -- including entertainment and music -- had the chance to tweak their business models.

They had the opportunity to offer better value for money to their customers, who instead of waiting for staggered global release dates and the cost of $16.99 for a CD were suddenly able to share and download the same product within minutes for free.

No wonder it caught on.

Instead of changing with the times, the industries instead focused their efforts on trying to squash the insurgence. They tried the 'sacrificial goat approach', charging individual 'leechers' -- those who download but do not redistribute in turn -- extortionate amounts of money that they would never be able to pay back.

The taking down of individual torrent sites that linked to the torrent file itself set a precedent where some website owners made a mockery of fractured, vague legal systems being imposed across borders; though it has not even begun to scratch the surface of the 'endemic' problem.

Governments worldwide are not focusing on the bigger picture. Instead, in a bid to satisfy the perverse Hollywood relationship the government has, it is not focusing on one very key outcome.

Citizens will not accept a government that censors the web.

To consider Pandora's box theory, illegal copyright infringement, piracy, or 'stealing', whatever you may call it, is ingrained into modern society to attempt to limit and control.

How would the general public react if the U.S. had a situation similar to the UK riots -- which considering the economic state may not be such a fantasy? Would they calmly accept the restriction on Facebook or Twitter for an unspecified amount of time? A week? A month?

This could be 'due cause' to restrict and monitor social networking. Doesn't this in turn limit how we can communicate, and if need be, organise public lobbying or peaceful protests?

Oh, hello China. Why are you smirking at us oh-so smugly?

It's also amazing just how many people fighting for this bill aren't versed in technology. Take Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas): "I'm not a technical expert on this", he exclaims.

Would it not make more sense for the copyrighted material sharing 'phenomena' to be studied properly by technology experts, as the entire scenario relies on technology to make it possible?

The backlash will arguably definitively come from the younger generation. In reality, there are children still in high school who know more about programming and DNS entries than most of those arguing in Congress. Workarounds will be sought, discovered and widely accessed.

But who will enforce the 'Great Firewall of America': the copyright infringement police of Hollywood, or U.S. law enforcement? If it is the former rather than the latter, either way it routes at least some way into turning into the end-scene from V for Vendetta.

With the act handing over tremendous power to even small copyright holders, this could in turn cause online entrepreneurship to stagnate or even decline. Who would wants to spend time and money on a venture that could be shut down within a matter of days, whilst lawyers take their cut and argue over the issue?

Innovation may be exploding due to the freedom of the Internet and the rapid expansion of social media, but this bill could pinch out the flame.

SOPA is not about catching those who infringe copyright law.

It's centered instead on the means to do it. The third-party who provides the service, such as a government regulator or even a private industry member -- because governments do love to outsource, particularly in shady areas to distance itself from the judiciary -- will mean that the Twitter's, Facebook's and the Tumblr's of the world can immediately incur liability. Small businesses can be hit with bogus or difficult to prove copyright claims, and be shut down within days.

The average user will not be able to bypass the bill's measures, but it is not the average user that infringes copyright on a mass level.

Beyond anything else, there is no solid evidence to suggest that without this bill, the copyright system will fail. It should be businesses that adapt their business model, and find a cure to a solution that it in part created.

Putting copyright into perspective and relative proportion.

The list of opponents to this bill runs down the length of my arm. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, AOL, Yahoo!, eBay, Mozilla -- and of course, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) -- all oppose this bill and the measures it could enacts.

But instead of countering child abuse imagery, online terrorism and cybercrime, Hollywood is instead bidding its efforts on self-preservation amongst other things.

The web of politics that enmeshes economics, corporations and the public is well known and heavily documented. But something is heinously wrong when the balance of power shifts to the point where intended laws to protect the film and music industry are more severe, restricting and infringing of civil liberties than the laws set to prevent and report the spread of online child sexual abuse.

Putting a band-aid over a wound does not heal it. All in all, you cannot control something you do not understand the nature of.

But Congress will try anyway.

Charlie Osborne, ZDNet's new iGeneration columnist, contributed to this report.


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