Ill-considered law solves nothing

Mathias Turner

Last week saw something unique and beautiful in the history of our nation. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, millions of Internet users came to together in protest of the Stop On-line Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, two pieces of proposed legislation aimed at stopping online piracy. On the surface, this sounds like a fine idea. People do pirate and piracy is stealing; the entertainment industry is understandably upset about losing out on potential revenue. So, why all the fuss?

It’s easy to interpret this as the work of a bunch of acne-ridden introverts crying out in anger over losing their access to free stuff, and that seems to be the popular assumption. However, such an assumption fails to take into account several important factors, as well as entirely missing the point of the protest. Over seven million people signed Google’s petition protesting this legislation. Several of the largest and most popular websites on the Internet “went black” to draw attention to the issue, even Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, has publicly voiced his opposition.

As a brilliant programmer and one of the web’s most successful entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg understands how the Internet functions as well as anyone alive. As one of the richest individuals on the planet, the man has no interest in piracy. His comments zero in directly on the heart of the issue.

“The internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the Internet’s development.”

Even this understates the severity of the issue at hand. It’s not simply a matter of our legislators failing to think things through, but a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Internet works.

Our current Congress is one of the oldest we’ve ever had. That is to say, the average age of the people currently serving as senators (62.2) and representatives (56.7) is higher than it has been at almost any other point in our nation’s history. That may not seem like a big deal, but contrast this with the fact that we live in a time of exponentially increasing rates of change and development, unparalleled in the history of our species. Our elders are certainly just as capable as anyone else of staying on top of technological development, but doing so requires that one make a concentrated effort. I’ve met very few seniors who care enough to even pretend to make that effort, and (by their own admission, and evidenced by their arguments) our legislators fall into this category.

Simply put, Congress has no business legislating something they don’t understand, regardless of how good their intentions may be. Laws like SOPA are a bad idea for the same reason we no longer consider bleeding patients to be an acceptable medical practice: it does nothing to combat the illness (or even alleviate the symptoms), and only causes additional damage.

The thing about the Internet is it’s full of nerds. No government, or collection of governments working in tandem, will ever be able to combat the collective creativity of every nerd on the planet. No matter how drastic the measures they resort to may be.

It only takes one person to find a work-around before that information is shared with everyone else. A quick Google search yields step-by-step instructions on how to get around the changes that were proposed by SOPA, and this information has been available for quite some time. Think of it as a digital version of Vietnam, or the war on drugs.

The best the powers that be can ever hope to accomplish is to slow piracy down for a while. They can fight it, but they can never defeat it. Even if they cut off access to the Internet entirely, the global nerd community would simply build a new one. In fact, the plans for just such a thing are already in motion. One can only imagine the wanton piracy that would occur in such an unregulated environment.

People who are computer savvy enough to pirate will continue to be computer savvy enough to pirate. The only guarantee when it comes to Internet legislation is that the average, law-abiding citizen is going to be the one affected. When you give legislators the power to control your access to the Internet, you give them the power to determine what you see, read, and hear.

Keep in mind; the laws we create now will remain in effect regardless of how power changes hands. No matter how much you may support the current administration, or may support the next one, it will not be long before the pendulum swings back in the opposite direction. Republicans, how much faith are you willing to put in the Democrats to censor the Internet with integrity? Democrats, how much faith are you willing to put in the Republicans to censor the Internet rationally? What can we possibly stand to gain by allowing others to determine what information we have access to? I don’t know how much you respect your own intelligence, but I for one am adult enough to make those decisions for myself.

I remain unconvinced that piracy is even an issue worth worrying about. According to the Entertainment Merchants Association’s own statistics, piracy doesn’t seem to be hurting them. Blu-ray sales rose by 53% in 2010, and home video sales/rentals accounted for more studio video revenue than the box office, premium cable, and Video on Demand combined.

With the recent bust of MegaUpload in New Zealand, our government has demonstrated that it is fully capable of combating piracy without the need for additional legislation – even if the piracy is based in another country – and all without having to worry about due process.

SOPA and PIPA may have been defeated, but this is far from over. The entertainment industry will continue to lobby congress to pass anti-piracy laws, and we must continue to fight to protect the Internet. Piracy is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of a world in which we can freely share information. We have a choice between taking a stand for our liberties, or giving them away so that a few select companies can see a negligible increase in profits. As the government loves to remind us in times of war, “Freedom isn’t free,” and they’re absolutely right about that. Let’s allow one of the wealthiest industries on the planet to foot the bill this time.