SOPA and The New Gatekeepers

I’ll admit that on a scale of 1-10, my following of the SOPA/PIPA escapades is only about a 6. This may seem low for someone who runs a platform that hosts 50 million unique visitors a month; all of whom are able to post user-generated content which potentially violates SOPA/PIPA principles.

Having been acquired by msnbc.com, a company 50% owned by Microsoft (who opposes SOPA as drafted) and 50% owned by NBC (who is one of the most visible proponents of the bill) our little organization is powerless to do much about the situation and frankly to even express much of an opinion about it. Note: I have not been told to shut up about anything. I just feel like there are enough smart people working this out right now that the world doesn’t really need my opinion on it.

What I do want to talk about, however, is a truth about the new world of legislation that this SOPA/PIPA fracas has made extraordinarily clear:

If you want to pass any sort of bill that affects the internet, you better vet it with the people who control the internet.

By “control the internet”, I of course don’t mean the people manning the tubes. I mean the people who run the most important destinations on the internet and the people who back those people. This includes the heads of for-profit destinations like Twitter and Facebook, the caretakers of non-profit destinations like Wikipedia, the investors who back all of the great online companies of tomorrow, and the government officials who are sympathetic to their cause.

From this anything-but-exhaustive list, we have Dick Costolo, Mark Zuckerberg, Jimmy Wales, Paul Graham (and cohorts), and none other than Barry O. himself. None of these people support SOPA as it has been drafted. Not only do they oppose it, but many have gone out of their way to publicly denounce it. Jimmy Wales has gone so far as to shut down the world’s most important collection of knowledge for a day to demonstrate what shutdowns actually look like.

It seems incredible to me that these gatekeepers of the modern internet were seemingly not even polled as to what they thought of this bill before it was floated. It would be like the EPA trying to sneak through a law that automobiles get 100mpg by year’s end without even talking to the car companies first. In some ways it’s even worse than that.

The truth is that the most powerful and influential people today look very different from the most powerful and influential people of the last century. The 20th century was all about industrialization. The game was to take a natural resource (like oil or cotton) process it until something useful (like gasoline or clothing) and then sell it for as much of a profit as you could. Since many congressmen came from industrial professions before they took office, or at the very least could easily wrap their heads around fairly straightforward concepts like oil drilling or cotton ginning, they had little difficulty a) maintaining relationships with important people in industrial fields, and b) drafting laws which made sense for consumers and producers at the time.

This new world, however, in which probably less than 10% of our elected officials can even tell us what a DNS server is, is a disconnected one. How are congressmen supposed to write bills that are palatable to the public if they don’t understand the ramifications of how the bills are to be technologically enforced? If you listen to the various SOPA debates like this one on PBS with Ben Huh and Rick Cotton, you don’t hear the anti-SOPA people disagreeing with the spirit of the bill. You hear them disagreeing with the letter of it; and to Rick Cotton’s credit, he even asks Ben if Ben would support the bill if it were written differently.

The people at media companies who helped write this bill are lawyers. It is usually a lawyer’s job to write up documents that are most favorable to their client. It is then, however, the other side’s job to modify that language into something equitable. “The other side” in this case is our elected representatives. What seems to have failed in this case was not that the initial draft was written as it was written, but that Congress did a terrible job of analyzing it, shopping it to important technologists, and then presenting something that actually made sense. As a result, this bill will fail, and that’s about the worst outcome private sector SOPA supporters could ever imagine. So in a sense, Congress failed both SOPA supporters and SOPA opponents. Amazing but true.

We either need a world where our elected officials know more about how technology works or a world where they at least consult a more heterogenous group of gatekeepers before proposing laws that affect technology, IP, and free speech.

It seems like it will be at least another generation until we get the former, so it is imperative that we immediately get the latter.

Note: I am speaking on behalf of myself here and not on behalf of any of the organizations who employ me (who I love equally :) ).

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4 Responses:

  1. Benjamin Listwon says:

    You touched on something interesting that I hadn’t thought about until now. The internet, and the population of it, is very good at crying foul and raising flags when speech or rights are in danger of infringement. It is however, nearly devoid of folks willing to reach fair compromise by participating directly in the negotiation and redrafting of what it has taken offense to.

    There are immediate notable professional exceptions, such as the EFF, and more generally applicable tools that we saw used during the Arab Spring, such as YouTube and Facebook. But it seems that at the end of the day, most of the talk that goes on is about the willingness to find a valid compromise, not the actual creation or work on such.

    Too often, when something is kicked out in response, it is too raw, reactionary and unvarnished to be taken seriously. Thus, too many folks not in the drivers seat consider the other side to be outlandish, regardless of what side you come down on.

    Am I mistaken? (probably) But I am honestly curious and anxious to be proven so.

  2. Mike D. says:

    I think you are correct on that, and it’s a key reason why this need not (and probably should not) be something that every one of us needs to be actively participating in. Aware, yes, but actively throwing tomatoes, no. A better solution would involve a council who can better formulate the concerns of the many. Some would say this is what Congress is designed to do, but I would argue it needs to be lower-level and more specialized than that.

  3. Kyle Warner says:

    This exact issue was brought up when the original committee hearings were held. No one with any technology expertise was present to testify to the committee. I understand having people there to support your bill, like the MPAA, but not having anyone to speak to the technology implications is very short sighted.

    Here is one article I found talking about it, but I’m sure there are hundreds more: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-57326228-281/new-flap-over-sopa-copyright-bill-anti-web-security/

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