Friday, January 18, 2013

A Year After SOPA

An odium for internet culture among the general public can seem justified when headlines show the dangerously large sums of money spent acquiring businesses without profit, when its martyrs blur the line between libertarianism and terrorism, and when its largest community is described in pop culture as being “fueled by envy and lost innocence”
Standing in juxtaposition to the general public, digital natives, who were born into an online world, can also claim justification in their skepticism of traditional systems. They were forced to stand by and watch in the closing hours of 2012 as a divided House adjourned while the United States proceeded to hurl itself over the fiscal cliff, and while a known global warming skeptic and author of the SOPA bill was named the Congressional Chairmen of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. A year ago these two worlds collided when the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) came to a head on January 18, 2012.
Today marks one year since the unprecedented showing of internet activism that was the SOPA Blackout, where an astounding 75,000 registered websites, 25,000 WordPress blogs and countless other web affiliates blacked out in protest of the proposed legislation that attempted to completely overhaul the architecture of the Internet. 
This leaves us with the question: Where are we now?
As a refresher, SOPA, and it’s sister act in the Senate, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), were proposed bills that sought to address copyright infringement by enabling direct legal action against Internet Service Providers (ISPs) here in the United States. It proposed to allow the United States Attorney General, at the request of a copyright holder, to file legal action against websites that host or facilitate copyright infringing content by requiring American ISPs to block access to those webpages. Once notified, ISPs would have to act within five business days or face legal action. While copyright infringement is an issue and conversation we all need to address, the major problem with SOPA was in the largely open-ended nature of the act that would provide sweeping jurisdiction, and therefore immense power, to the US Attorney General to shut down or fundamentally alter webpages without the need for judges, juries or other due process. In essence, a complaint could become an immediate legal action without a court proceeding.
Since the blackout a year ago, there have been interesting developments on both sides of the discussion and some action around online sharing. Most notably, in 2012, we saw the U.S. Government illegally raid and shut down one of the most widely used file-hosting web services in a showing worthy of a Christopher Nolan film. Equally as deserving of place in a Nolan film, on the pro-internet side of the argument we saw the formation of the Internet Defense League with their ambiguous mission to “protect the open web” against “entrenched institutions and monopolies”. 
What is evident in these developments since SOPA is a distinct clash in culture between government and large corporations, with large and complex bureaucracies that struggle to match the pace of the rapidly growing online world, and the “Internet Community”, which has developed a fear of regulation that they see as serving antiquated systems which favor big money interests. This fear is somewhat understandable when you consider the way alleged copyright infringements are treated like acts of terror, enforced by armed FBI agents in a scene eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.  It would seem the struggle over governance of the Internet has started to resemble the streets of Gotham, riddled with fear and questionable actions on both sides, and without much hope of resolution.
Where do we go from here? Given my comparison to Gotham City, the natural train of thought would be to look for a masked vigilante to swoop in and serve swift justice to the bad guys. The problem with the current situation is, in my opinion, there aren’t “good guys” or “bad guys”. The real issue in this debate is that both parties are missing a critical piece of the equation: education. 
We as the creators, suppliers, users and natives of the Internet need to do our part to help educate others and facilitate understanding about how, why and in what ways the Internet is used. It is important that we take the time and give evidence when we claim that the repurposing of copyrighted content in the form of GIFs, YouTube videos and memes isn’t infringement or piracy but the nature of creativity and learning. We demand transparency and yet we need to be more transparent ourselves. It’s easy to get frustrated with mom or dad when trying to explain “social media”, but until we take the time and map it out in ways familiar and understandable to them, we are only perpetuating the same fears and misconceptions that threaten to repress our freedoms in the first place. 
As we open this dialogue, we need our representatives, the elected officials who are quite literally deciding the future of American growth and competitiveness, to show an equal effort. Our legislators must commit the time to learning and truly understanding what is at stake — not just monied interests, but American interests — and advocate on behalf of the Internet and their digital constituents who represent a big part of our nation’s economic future. From Congress we need transparency in lawmaking,  as well as well-defined, intelligent policies that enable and empower the enrichment of the Internet and its vast potential. All of this starts with education. 
We fear what we do not understand, and right now we sit across the table from each other confused, skeptical and fearful. This will continue as long as we lack knowledge about each other and our intentions. Very soon, the Internet will fuel the exchange of more than just media content, with movements like open hardware and desktop fabrication that will soon deliver things — digital objects and other atom-based items — we can send, copy and produce in our own homes. This is already happening globally, and from here it’s only a matter of time before we are sharing more complex files over the web like biomaterials and even DNA sequences. It’s time we have this conversation, and in order to do so we need to take the time and educate one another. 
So I challenge you in 2013, a year after SOPA, to take the time to learn and truly understand that which you do not. No matter which side of this issue you find yourself on, help others from other generations, fields, and industries to do the same. Where will be a year from now? Will we still be asking where do we go from here? Or will our education of self and others dictate a direction in which we can all proceed with confidence? You decide.