A Note On Yesterday

Statistics say a few people did visit this site yesterday just to find that it joined the internet-wide blackout protest against the SOPA and PIPA legislation working their way through the US House and Senate.  First, I’d like to say a few words on my decision to join the protest, then a few words on why I’m against this legislation.  Words I probably should have said on Tuesday.

I have, on several occasions, stated that I do not get into politics or religion on this blog, in my Twitter statuses, or over on Google+.  However, there are some subjects that, while political in nature, I believe actually transcend politics.  One of these is censorship, which I’ve spoken out against on several occasions in this blog.  So while the battle lines being drawn in the House and Senate look partisan, my opposition to the bill has nothing to do with my personal politics, and everything to do with my anticensorship stance.  That’s half of why I joined in.  The other half is why I thought my little blog with its 20-30 viewers a day made any damn difference in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t pretend for a moment that someone learned about SOPA or PIPA for the first time by following the link I had on my blackout page yesterday.  Joining the protest was more about volume and solidarity.  The potential enforcement breadth for these bills is vast and could hit both big sites like Wikipedia and comparatively microscopic sites like mine.

Actually, in the end, it could hit a site like mine much harder, because I wouldn’t have the necessary legal fund to mount any sort of appeal to the decision, I’d probably just have to take my lumps and be gone from the web.

So why, exactly, do I oppose the bill?  I’ve seen some efforts made to paint anti-SOPA activists as pro-piracy.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As a creator of Intellectual Property, I want to see that property protected.  However the bills as written do nothing to actually protect anyone from piracy, all they’ll do is make the internet harder for the law-abiding citizen to use while stemming none of the illegal activity that happens.  Whether this is because the bill authors are ignorant to the workings of the internet, or through a specific maliciousness, I could only offer opinions.  Why won’t it work?  Well, let’s create a tortured analogy, because I like creating those.  And since this is a blog about writing, let’s use a book as an analogy.

Let’s, in fact, use a massive and hypothetical dictionary as our analogy.  This dictionary contains every word and, bizarrely for a dictionary, has an index in the back.  This is necessary because the words in the dictionary are actually presented in largely an apparently random order based on which language they came from and when they became words, so you need a way to figure out which page and column each word is in.

That page and column number is equivalent to an IP address.  You may have seen those, they’re four sets of numbers separated by dots that usually look something like  Every website on the internet has an IP address, and if the website is so configured you can directly access it with that IP address.  But they’re hard to remember, so websites instead are given nice friendly URLs, like dlthurston.com.  The index in the analogy is a DNS server, a layer of the internet that translates the URL into the correct IP address so that a site can be accessed.

Back to the analogy.  You’re looking through this dictionary and you see that the word “fuck” is in it.  You decide that the word is offensive and that no one should be able to see that word.  So you go to the index and you white it out.  But here’s the problem.  The word is still fully defined in the dictionary, it’s just been removed from the index.  Anyone who knew where to find it will still be able to find it.  This is what SOPA does, it demands that DNS servers remove the URL/IP linking to sites that are offering copyrighted materials.

But it does more than that.  This dictionary is in a bigger library.  Someone who knew where to find the word “fuck” in the dictionary decides to go to another book entirely and scribble in the margins where to find the word.  You discover that, so what do you do?  Well, an effective approach would be to figure out who the vandal was, but the approach that SOPA takes is to blame the author and publisher of the book, even if they had absolutely no control over margin scribbles.

So what can be done by the publishers and authors?  Well, they can seal their books, not allowing any interaction.  They could just not publish them to begin with.

In the end, it’s a completely ineffective approach to a legitimate problem, and one that will cause any number of unintended and extremely negative repercussions.  It is far worse than the status quo.  Fortunately SOPA is dead, but only for the time being.  While yesterday’s internet protest was super effective and the bill did lose not just support but cosponsors, the remaining sponsors and authors are still promising to bring it back and try again.  The primary weapons against these bills must be education and vigilance, because in the end this is the internet we’re talking about.  Perhaps one of the most important inventions in the history of man for bringing people and ideas closer together.  It isn’t always pretty, but burning it down out of spite is not the way to go.

Edited 3:33 pm:  TED talks.  Seriously, TED talks are fantastic.  Not having a regularly scheduled TED and wanting to get a talk about SOPA and PIPA up, they invited Clay Shirky to explain the problems with PIPA and SOPA, all in a much more scholarly tone, and even with a better analogy than the one above.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by Day Al-Mohamed on January 19, 2012 - 11:13 am

    Very proud of the fact that my old boss has been leading the charge against this for over a year now.

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