Congress Is Messing With the Internet Again

As you Cyber-Monday shop, our government is trying to turn us into China

While lots of us spent the last few desperate hours of our Thanksgiving weekend gawking at the awkward end/not end of the Occupy Philly encampment, a menace more immediate than institutionalized corporate/financial/governmental malfeasance/inequity/skulduggery lurks barely noticed.

As, in the hallowed tradition of Cyber Monday, we sit at our desks and pilfer office broadband to cash in on online deals we were too lazy/indignant/terrified to pursue in person on Black Friday, a threat to the Internet—the very tool used to organize Occupy, the Cairo uprisings and much of the Arab Spring—and its unequaled power to enact change sits before Congress.

(I know that holding up Cyber Monday as a paragon of the transformative power of the Internet seems a stretch, but bear with me while you remember what your holidays were like before Amazon wishlists.)

A pair of bills supported by the usual suspects well-meaning folks including the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Motion Picture Association, and, oddly but unsurprisingly, big pharma—the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (introduced October 26th), and the Senate’s train wreck of an acronym, the PROTECT IP Act (introduced in May, it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but has been put on hold)—aim to grant unprecedented power to the government to shut down and/or block access to and/or cut off from payment and advertising services websites believed to be distributing pirated material and keep search engines and other sites from linking to those sites. (FWIW, this has been endeavored before.) Depending on your bent, this seems like a) a damned fine thing to pursue, because they’re stealing our content! b) a classic government overreach paired with a hand-job for big brother’s buddy, big business or c) a foolish, headlong pratfall down a very slippery slope.

As you may have guessed, I’m in group c. What’s particularly distressing are the powers the acts would give to companies to sue other companies, particularly start-ups. In their infancy, would YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or countless other socially transformative sites that are, by their nature, often conduits for copyrighted material, have survived a government shut-down backed by moneyed dinosaurs out to protect their decaying business models? More importantly, will the next media revolution be allowed out of the gate?

(Note that as a writer/reporter content provider, the value of whose time and work has been diminished by the flood of free content that the Internet enables/demands and the “piracy” of original work by content farms, site-scrapers and aggregators, I’m not callous to the plight of the pirated. And for what it’s worth, the acts don’t seem particularly popular among artists content creators, either.)

As the music industry learned and the book industry is figuring out, you can’t stop pirates; you can hardly hope to contain them. (With their embrace of Spotify, record labels are at least trying to learn from the Napsters of yore.) As a team of analytical modelers from Duke and Rice universities discovered, attempts to stem piracy via the use of digital rights management (DRM) has the unintended consequence of encouraging further piracy, rewarding the pirates and, ultimately, punishing legal customers with higher prices to fund DRM systems that don’t work. To think that piracy can be legislated away demonstrates an ignorance of history. The Internet is by nature disruptive because it knows no borders, which is what makes it at once so scary to those in power and so important to the oppressed and otherwise voiceless. These go hand in hand.

All of which is to say piracy is a fact of life on the Internet, which also happens to be the greatest vehicle for social, political and societal change humankind has yet known. Proposed regulation should be dealt with lightly, and should carefully consider all ramifications, intended and otherwise. As Google’s Eric Schmidt has opined, acts such as the ones before Congress offer “simple solutions to complex problems” and would set a “disastrous precedent” that’s a few easy-to-envision hops and skips from freedom-crushing policies like those in China.

If you’re an Occupier or a supporter, this is at the heart of what you’re fighting for. And if you’re not, you should seriously think about sending an email, signing a petition, tweeting or posting a status update. Y’know, while you can.