Musing about SOPA

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post. The internet was not, and is not, solely a new distribution mechanism for Hollywood and for pockets of the music industry; but the power of these incumbents is immense in the Western world, and it is therefore possible, perhaps even likely, that bad law will be legislated to protect decayed and dying industries from being disrupted. Even though the customer suffers as a result.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post. The internet wasn’t always a global phenomenon. It grew principally from the vision and commitment of US citizens, and as a result there has been a level of US-centricity about its progress and evolution. If the US were to give up this leadership role (which it no doubt will, if SOPA goes ahead) then others will step into the breach. The internet routes around obstacles, we have seen this repeatedly during Arab Spring.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post.  The anchors and frames for this debate have already been subverted; the incumbent lobby has done a good PR job. The commonly held belief is that people against SOPA, by definition support stealing,  support denying artists their rightful income. So everyone who tries to attack SOPA goes through that mill, and the mill grinds slowly and exceeding small.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post. Anything I do may not be enough to stop it happening; it may not matter anyway; and it may damage my reputation unduly and unwarrantedly.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write this post. There appear to be only downsides to my action.

So why am I writing it?

Because the internet matters. It matters to the world. It matters to people who are giving their all to changing historical and broken paradigms in education, in healthcare, in business, even in government. As the price of being connected with smart mobile devices drops, as three billion more people join the ranks of the ubiquitous always-on, we’re going to see amazing changes. Changes that will radically improve the lives of our children and grandchildren.

For that to happen, we have to make the internet a safer place. We. Not me. Not you. We. Much has been done to achieve this, much remains to be done. Sustainable cybersecurity is essential if we wish for a world where health, education, welfare, business and government are transformed anew. And there’s been so much progress in making this happen that wasting it is bordering on the criminal, the insane, the criminally insane.

This transformation, bringing in the power of the collective, making everything more social, more sharable, democratising access and knowledge and power, this transformation is essential if we are to solve some of the core problems we face, in environment, in disease control, in health and nutrition, in climate change, in food supplies, in water. The institutions we looked to in the past cannot cope with the complexity they face. They need the internet and what it represents. And they need it to be safe,  secure, reliable.

I’ve read more than I care to list here about SOPA; I can’t claim to understand all of it, I’m neither a lawyer nor a politician. The Wikipedia article is probably a good place for you to start, if you’re interested… the very existence of Wikipedia is threatened by everything that SOPA represents.

There is so much emotion around about SOPA that I wanted to give my readers something fundamentally different to look at, when it comes to forming your views. What I suggest is, leave aside everything else you’ve heard and read about SOPA, and concentrate on this one point:

How do you defend cyberspace while protecting against online piracy?

This research paper by the Brookings Institution: Cybersecurity in the Balance: Weighing the risks of the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a must-read in this context. Here’s part of the opening:

This paper does not deal with the questions of economic value, free expression or other issues raised by advocates on both sides. Instead, I highlight the very real threats to cybersecurity in a small section of both bills in their attempts to execute policy through the Internet architecture. While these bills will not “break the Internet,” they further burden cyberspace with three new risks

The “three new risks” mentioned are spelt out further in the article. I summarise them below (my words, my interpretations):

  • PROTECT IP and SOPA make it harder and more complex to keep the internet secure, just in terms of architecture and processes
  • In addition, as companies and customers are forced to migrate away to less secure places, they will be exposed to greater risks
  • Current national and international initiatives to improve security will be undermined, set back, and sometimes even abandoned


We need to frame the argument differently, and the Brookings paper helps us do that.

It’s not “Do you support Hollywood or do you support stealing?”

It is “Do you want a safe internet where health, education, welfare and government are transformed, or do you want a distribution mechanism with protection for Hollywood’s historical business model?”

I hope SOPA does not happen. I hope better, more sensible, more technically feasible, more equitable and more progressive means are found to deal with the problem of decay of Hollywood business models. I hope that the more sensible routes will actually mean that creatives get paid properly, rather than what happens to them today.


10 thoughts on “Musing about SOPA”

  1. Too much of this feels like the Digital Economy Act all over again:

    * Netizens finding out just how broken the political process is
    * The slow realisation that it’s like this all the time
    * Supporters using all kinds of subterfuge to ram things though (like wash up, and proposed debates in Xmas week)
    * Attempts at compromise to avoid the worst, when the best move would be no compromise – take the whole edifice down

    I could go on.

    It also reminds me of cyber defence, we have to win all the time; they just have to break through once.

    I fear a repeat of DEAct, and then I fear that SOPA will be exported worldwide. I’m also sure that those who truly value the Internet and its freedoms will carry on regardless.

    There will be a lot of bad law to repeal by the time the cluefull get to grasp the reigns of power.

  2. Chris, I felt similarly, and wasn’t particularly motivated to write about SOPA. Being party to the DEBill shenanigans and to the two-facedness of some of the political participants, and seeing the nonsense that was finally enacted despite public outrage, I’d formed a view that the dinosaurs were still powerful enough for a last, damaging, delaying dance.

    But I couldn’t keep away.

  3. I disagree (only slightly) with your analysis. Specifically

    we have to make the internet a safer place

    We really don’t. We have to preserve the physical structure of Internet. We also have to mitigate against some abuses (like DDoS). That’s just about it.

    Users and service providers should ensure that their computers don’t harm the structure of Internet. Sweeping your machine for viruses, or ensuring that your service isn’t being used to cause harm.

    But nothing more. Internet is simply a method to transmit data from one point to another. What people choose to transmit is up to them. If it’s healthcare records, photos to friends, or subversive political material, they should take the necessary precautions.

    If you don’t want to be troubled by keeping safe – go and use AOL, Compuserve, or

  4. @Charles, didn’t realise I was entering a popularity contest. Pushing back on Twitter and RT-ing relevant tweets was what I did for the past month, what changed is that I was enthused to write about it as well. Which was not the case earlier.

  5. @terence fair enough. safety is as much about education and good practice as it is about infrastructure and architecture. Good point.

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