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Big Content Won’t Scare Me off the Net

Or why this site is not blacked out.

(Updated to add links for further reading at the end of the post. I realize as my thoughts are shared beyond my usual readership that this entry doesn’t adequately explain the issues and what is at risk, relying very heavily on my writing and podcasts to make clear what is at stake and my broader views on copyright.)

Blacking out web sites in protest of proposed legislation that would adversely impact the values embodied in online conversation and activity is one of the more venerable traditions in a space defined by a metaphorical clock that ticks at breakneck speed.

In the past, these efforts have seemed to me to be a bit tenuous at best. I say so not to doubt the sincerity or commitment of those participating but of the visibility of these virtual actions to the general prublic and responsible policy makers.

Not so this time around. I don’t think it is the sheer volume of participation, though I don’t have any hard data to back up my sense of that. I think that access to the net is now much more a part of an expanding fraction ordinary people’s daily reality than in protests past. There are still not inconsiderable challenges we have left to realizing true universal access but all the same I feel this campaign is a signal moment beyond just the issues it is directly addressing. The audience size seems to have passed a tipping point, not the head count of those speaking out. Perhaps this is as a result of the recent round of social innovations, maybe it is just the logical outcome of growth curves going back to the original commercialization of the net in the nineties.

The reason my site is still live has nothing to do with skepticism of other destinations going dark. Hopefully I’ve made clear how I feel the highest profile sites speaking out will affect more people than any other issue thus far. I am especially eager to get a sense of how broadly the self imposed embargo of Wikipedia reaches. A site that is more used by more people seems hard to imagine, even the most popular news or media outlet. And yet, try to think back to Wikipedia’s presence in the public consciousness ten or even just five years ago in comparison.

The core provocation invited by the web wide blackout is to imagine an online space where laws like SOPA and PROTECT IP are on the books. In such a world, the expanded and unchecked private rights of action will the your most notorious YouTube takedown spat to date look like a mild disagreement over an obscure point of netiquette in the most civil of networked fora. Easy to imagine existing voices quelled, as many are doing to themselves in protest; far harder to envision what voices might never be heard, what innovations never developed.

The most effective participation I’ve seen so far, at least for me, are the protests where the authors have clearly internalized the issues and put forward the same call to action, to contact your elected representatives to voice your concerns. Uniformity breeds complacency where as unqiue expression better begs thoughtful contemplation and hopefully active engagement.

In that context, in my speculative imagining of post-SOPA, post-PIPA world, I would still be here. Day in and day out I already try to parse and share the implications of the slug fest between the increasingly monopolistic entertainment industry and the innovators of all sizes from the technology sector. I don’t necessarily accept that piracy is the huge existential problem that the Hollywood establishment makes out. Taking that as a point of departure, there are just far too many questions around how legislation like the already on the books DMCA and the proposed ones we are currently protesting are appropriate responses.

Beyond my loud mouthed persistence in publicly teasing apart these questions, my own imp of the perverse would drive me to tempt the exercise of these new private rights of action on steriods, powers that lack appropriate cheks-and-balances when the proven potential for abuse is so great.

Let them try to shut me up, if the stakes are free expression then being subject of impact litigation is well worth the cost.


To learn more about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and why so many sites and people are protesting them, the page for taking action at American Censorship has plenty of additional resources, scroll towards the bottom for a video, some selected articles and a timeline of events around these pieces of legislation.

Posted in Policy.

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5 Responses

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  1. Goblin says

    This is all great and noble. However, you like all the other net commentators don’t address the fundmental reason why this is even a matter of contention. To you all the content wether “Big” or small is valueless, as in “free”. Your internet as it stands now turns a blind eye to the hard work of so many people.

    At the very least it is wrong to dismiss this question of the values of anothers work, even if it is from a lobby that you do not recognize. Can you answer the question that Huh did not? Can you support a legal regime that in some way recognizes the value of anothers work, or is this just too much? The hacker community philosophy needs to be expressly clear on this.

  2. Thomas Gideon says

    I do not see all content as valueless, quite the contrary. I respect the choice of creators, whether they distribute their work freely or ask for support, either in traditional or non-traditional ways.

    I cannot use a free or open license in good conscience and do otherwise. The use of such licenses goes along with an expectation that others will respect my wishes with regards to the terms of sharing, free or otherwise.

    Not all hackers may acknowledge it, but releasing free software and open media is logically and ethically inconsistent with disrespecting the value of the works by pirating it.

    All that being said, laws like the DMCA and bills like SOPA and PIPA are not about respecting the value of works. They are about building a veto over innovation in the guise of fighting piracy. In the past, our legislature here in the US has worked at compromises, like statutory licensing, that allow innovation with due consideration to the value of existing creations.

    The private rights of actions being lobbied for by big content do not reserve any room at all for fair use and for new and unanticipated inventions and expressions. Big does enter into it as only the big intermediaries, the labels and studios and the trade associations that represent them, have the resources to lobby for these unfair means of address a problem whose legitimacy is far from settled.

    • Goblin says

      I don’t doubt the flaws of the legislation as it currently exists. But I still feel there is a value drain that is beyond the respect of anyone’s wishes. The most ready such counter example is the rampant ripping of CC licenced artistic works on sites like DeviantArt. So yes I agree that big content is making an overreaching power play, but at the same time this is temperd by the fact not everyone respects law or custom. And there is willing blind-eye when it comes to those who do not respect custom as you detail.

      So if we agree on the respect of another’s works how then do we address this custom via law? There has to be some sort of compromise that can be reached here that addressess blatent piracy but leave room for fair use. The question is where is that space? I sense an unwillingness to address the fact that there are bad actors within your, or anyone elses, framework.

      Let’s say that not everyone who engages in pirating is an unknowing dunce as you argued late last year, there are scofflaws and the question now becomes how do we address the scofflaws without targeting the legitimate fair users? The issue is far from black and white as both sides in this debate wish to characterize it one shade or the other.

  3. Thomas Gideon says

    It isn’t that I do not acknowledge piracy, it is that I doubt there very much that can be done to curb it, outside of large scale commercial piracy where there are existing means to shut them down via appropriate police investigation and criminal prosecution.

    The sort of counter example you cite is indeed troubling and I admit to not having a satisfying answer. I do try to highlight where creators are engaging with piracy of this type to their own advantage–coopting them into promoting their work, offering greater rewards behind the work itself in exchange for tangible support.

    I agree with Tim O’Reilly’s assertion that piracy is a progressive tax on creators, http://openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2002/12/11/piracy.html. I think there is an inherent limit on the returns for tackling piracy head on via measures like the DMCA, SOPA and PIPA.

    I think understanding the reasons why pirates don’t and won’t pay is a more fruitful exercise, whether we are considering legal recourses, market responses or evolving norms.

    • Goblin says

      I follow, and am in accord for the most part. However, personally, I things are more far gone then people, especially tech people, realize.

      There is a reason there is a coming “war on general computing,” (I tend to think this is slightly hyperbolic but there is no other identifier as of yet). The shiny newness of internet technology has worn off and there are more then just corporations who want a say in how we relate to this new technology. More and more I see my limited work as an outward symptom of this, technology has acheived widespread adoption and is now for more then just techies.

      We are now witnessing the beginning of techies comeing to terms with “non-professional,” if still intelligent people asserting themselves within and around the new technologies, sharing their opinions on technology both through the government and with the new technology. I think if the SOPA debate has tought us anything its that there seems to be a third “middle” way to address the problem that should involve extensive discussions between the aggreived parties. After all what are governments for.

      If anything tech types should be happy as this has been their stated goal all along, “democratizing of technology”. Why now advocates and experts suddenly see a looming apocalypse is both odd and troubling. And frankly trying to work out this massive disonance in my head, or on my blog generally gets leaves me with more questions then answers. (I worry to many are so distrustful of government that they don’t realize when it is actually working in their favor… but thats another issue) Which above all is why I enjoy your show as you avoid the trope of self-righteousness that is so common amongst so many internet advocates.



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