Wednesday, January 18, 2012

idiocracy, interrupted

Today, the Internet is protesting a House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act, which is purportedly aimed at wiping out online piracy but which, as written, would actually open the government and certain private parties to completely altering the way the Internet, digital commerce, and digital citizenship work. For a non-lawyer, I know a fair amount about this particular bill, what it actually says and doesn't say, thanks to my having family with intimate knowledge of both Internet and intellectual property law. It all started two months ago, when I received a phone call from said family. It was a distress call the likes of which I hadn't heard in quite some time. The fam was lamenting the fact that these two pieces of legislation, SOPA and PIPA, were flying through Congress with bipartisan support, and they were absolutely insane and ridiculous, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. "SOPA?" I asked, honestly not sure whether he was talking about a new law governing cleansing products. "What the hell is that?"

He then told me all about it, and I got hot and bothered, to the point of wanting to do something. So I tweeted. And he doesn't tweet, but he talked to people. And as is wont to happen, those people talked to other people. It seemed clear that from the community of those who had figured it out, a discussion would need to grow—and fast—were there any shot at stopping this thing. So it was awesome to see that it did begin to grow, in ways little and not-so-little.

Before long, I found myself watching hours and hours of the House Judiciary Committee's SOPA markup, not like me at all. Let's face it: Much as I care about American politics, C-Span is pretty much where I draw the line. But to quote my friends from down South, hooeeeey boy! Was that an eye-opener. Washington Post commentator Alexandra Petri likened it to waking up from a nightmare only to realize the nightmare is real. Right-o. See, I've known for a long time that things in Congress are bad. But this was embarrassing. I listened for about eight hours, and the quickie version goes like this: The vast majority of the folks voting on this thing don't have a clue about what they're voting on. They huff and haw and bandy about words they think make sense but which, in fact, make no sense at all.

Which is kind of what you'd expect if every member of Congress were somehow Sarah Palin. But of course, and very thankfully, this is not (I think) the case. So what's really the problem, it would seem, can be summed up in two words: Lobbying. Money.

Taking a step back, we have to agree that here's a situation where almost everyone is on the same side: Foreign thieves stealing American goods is bad! We should stop them! Yet the bills were written not by people who carefully weighed all the factors and players in this game and crafted a plan of attack that would get to the core of the problem while protecting other American interests. Nope, the bills were (as is the norm these days) written by people who pay Congressfolk to vote the way they want them to vote. In this case, that would be Hollywood and other Big Content Providers who feel the need to stop at nothing to try to save their dying business models—even if it means spending over $2.5 million in legalized bribery or screwing with the First Amendment along the way.

The truly weird thing about this case, though, has been the bipartisan nature of it. You wouldn't bat an eyelash if it were all Republicans, since they like to slide crazy stuff through Congress ALL. THE. TIME. (I’ll spare you the links, but trust me on this one.) Usually, there are Democrats to push back. This time, however, the hot-shot movie producers and such who pony up big cash for the Dems each November are the ones trying to slip this legislation through—and they’ve paid off both sides of the aisle. The approach seemed to work pretty well until the tech sector and intellectual property experts started asking questions. And that brings me to the other weird thing about this case: Early on, the opposing side wasn't even allowed to be at the table! Yup, you heard me. In the lone hearing on the bill, only one representative of the Internet community was asked to speak, and it was clear she was only invited to serve as a punching bag. It recalls days of yore when, with 10-year-old index fingers firmly planted inside our own ears, we would yell, "Nya nya nya nya, I can't hear you!"

So back to last month's markup. There was a point in the day in which it seemed like reason was going to prevail: Democrats and Republicans alike began to come out of the woodwork, admitting they were playing with fire to support a bill that they themselves had no real understanding of. Sadly, that didn't last long, and suggested fixes after suggested fixes were voted down. But it was almost Christmas, and the few reps who'd brought their A-games were refusing to back down, so a vote to move the bill out of committee was finally delayed until the new year.

And that brings us into the here and now... In fact, it recently started to look like the not-so-friendly fire might be history. Over the weekend, statements emanated from the White House intimating strongly that President Obama would veto any bills with workings similar to the current SOPA and PIPA. Representative Eric Cantor was later reported to be dropping action on SOPA if there was no consensus, which got the blogosphere rejoicing—a bit prematurely—over the bill's death. So here we are, just a few days later, and a significant chunk of the Internet is blacking out in protest and in solidarity with the cause. The truth of the matter is that there is still serious work to be done in the way of killing these bills. But, how cool is it to know that there are tens of thousands of tweeters out there who now sport anti-SOPA badges? That everyone who trots on over to Wikipedia today to look up Elton John's birthday is gonna at the very least now have heard of SOPA and PIPA and the efforts to prevent them from becoming law? That you can get your own "I fought SOPA and all I got was this stupid t-shirt"? It's true, we haven't won the battle yet. But I'm impressed as hell that we've all rallied the troops enough to fight another day.

Update: Hooray! SOPA and PIPA have officially been shelved just two days after the blackouts. The issue is sure to be revisited soon, but score one for democracy in action.