Save the Internets

I frequently and publicly (Usenet, IRC, web forums) encourage others to support official products instead of pirating them. Some of the things I’ve said about it over the years have been really cold and elitist, and would likely make people think I worked for some kind of media company. (I don’t remember if I’ve ever actually been accused of such, but it’s very possible.) So one might expect that I’d be a fan of this new COICA bill.

But I have also never been a fan of censorship. And this bill reeks of potential censorship. Claims of piracy have been used to target political activists in Russia, after all. I’d like to think the US government wouldn’t do things like that, but if this bill gets passed, especially with such vague wording, what’s to stop them? It has very unsettling implications, and I’m not the only one who thinks it could crap all over the First Amendment.

There’s also the fact that it won’t solve the problem. As long as the internet exists at all, people will find ways of connecting to each other and sharing files. And in this case, it doesn’t even serve as anything more than an inconvenience. The bill only mentions blocking domain names. It mentions nothing about blocking the actual IPs of the offending sites, which is all that is really necessary to access a server. And if it did, that would be far, far worse, due to the dynamic nature of IPs. An IP could belong to an offender in 2010, but in 2011, it could belong to an innocent person. And if that IP were blacklisted in 2010, the 2011 person would suffer unfairly. But to go back to domain names, this bill also doesn’t account for the fact that people could potentially use private, custom DNS that doesn’t follow the blacklist. Or the fact that people can simply edit their computers’ HOSTS file.

If I were to propose a solution, I would say to stop fighting piracy and start competing with it. As I said, people can and will find ways of sending files to each other, whether it’s via Napster, Kazaa, Pirate Bay, or whatever future software or services pop up. Instead of wasting resources (including taxpayer money, in this case) to fight pirates and embitter potential customers, why not instead use those resources to come up with competing solutions? I’m a big fan of ad-supported streaming, personally. It’s just as free as piracy, but it’s legal and very convenient. I watch streams of many things I may never buy on DVD, due to a limited budget, and/or a simple lack of interest in actually owning it. But the rights owners get a little bit of money from me watching streams of a movie or series, which is better than the $0 they’d get otherwise. I don’t know if that’s actually a sustainable or profitable business model, but why not use money otherwise spent on lawyers to experiment and refine it? Or work on creating other alternatives that will make piracy less attractive? iTunes and Netflix seem to be pretty popular and successful alternatives, for one. That kind of research and development work would create jobs, which is more than can be said for this bill.

Also, ideally, offenders should be taken to court and given a proper trial, and punished if they are actually found guilty. There are already international copyright laws in existence, aren’t there? But this bill does not seem to provide due process for the accused. And as I mentioned previously, it won’t even solve the problem for anyone with a bit of networking knowledge. It will just make it difficult for casual people to access sites that could potentially be innocent.

There was an incident earlier this summer where a site that hosted 70,000 blogs was shut down because at least one blog had apparent terrorist ties. The US government didn’t actually ask the hosting provider to shut it down, but it’s one example of thousands of innocents suffering for the crimes of a few. Another example is the fact that many major US ISPs dropped or limited their Usenet support due to the fact that a few newsgroups had child pornography, even though most other newsgroups did not. Things like this make me wonder: How does this bill plan to account for sites that host content from multiple users? Would YouTube be blacklisted because some users illegally upload full episodes or movies? Would Twitter be blacklisted because some users link to pirated material on other sites?

I’d also like to bring to mind the idea that not all piracy is necessarily worth shutting down. There are plenty of older TV shows that may never be released on home video, for whatever reason. Or even shows that were released only partially and may never be finished. Then there’s the popular practice of fan translations. Some fan translations certainly do compete with officially licensed ones, but in other cases they are done for media that may never be released outside of its original country or language. I wouldn’t try to claim that these situations are actually legal, but what would anyone actually gain from shutting communities like those down? Why not instead embrace them and figure out a way to sell them a real, legal product?

Thankfully, there are some members of my government who believe that this bill is overkill. Sadly, Al Franken is not one of them, so I don’t think I like him anymore. But I plan to write my local congressmen about this issue, and I hope other Americans reading this will agree it’s a big problem and do the same. I believe this also concerns international readers, however, as this bill could set an unfortunate precedent for other countries.

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Categories: Contemplation, General

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