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Archive: 2012‑Jan
Thu, 19 Jan 2012

Many sites on the Internet (including this blog) were "blacked out" yesterday as part of a protest against SOPA/PIPA. Opposition to these bills has been mounting for some time, and a few days ago it appeared that SOPA, at least, had been shelved by the House, but it turned out that it had only been delayed until February. (Even if does eventually get "shelved", the cynical read on that, which would be mine, will be that Congress is simply taking it off the radar, knowing how short the public's attention span is, and will try to slip it in later as an amendment to some other bill that is expected to pass without much scrutiny. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.)

CNN ran an article about the blackout which summarized the position of SOPA's supporters:

SOPA's supporters -- including CNN parent company Time Warner and groups such as the MPAA -- say that online piracy leads to U.S. job losses because it deprives content creators of income.

The bill's supporters dismiss accusations of censorship, saying the legislation is meant to revamp a broken system that doesn't adequately prevent criminal behavior.

The MPAA, as quoted in Ars Technica, was a bit more vituperative about the blackout:

Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging.

It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.

After reading this, I was tempted to add another post to the "rants" section of this blog. But I'll resist the temptation, because there actually is a serious issue here that deserves some non-ranting discussion. (It's worth noting, though, that Google's service was not unavailable during the blackout, nor were most others--though Wikipedia was. So there actually wasn't any "disservice to people who rely on them." But I'll pass over that.)

The MPAA speaks of "the freedoms that these companies enjoy in the marketplace today." What freedoms, exactly, are they referring to? Google gets the lion's share of search traffic because it's the best search engine on the web. So they certainly enjoy the freedom to provide an excellent service and have users choose to use it. But they don't have the freedom to force people to use their service, much less to make people believe their version of the facts. People are protesting because they rightly feel outrage at attempts to emasculate the Internet, not because Google or anyone else is "inciting" them. I would protest just as loudly, as I'm sure would many others who protested yesterday, if Google went to the government to try to get laws passed to favor their business model over others.

The simple fact is that the business model on which the corporations that make up the MPAA and RIAA were built is dead. The Internet killed it. It's not a question of "piracy"; it's a simple question of efficiency. Why should customers pay some company to make millions of copies of a plastic disk when the same information can be transmitted essentially for free over the Internet? It's not as though there are no new business models to replace the old ones; Netflix and iTunes are proof of that. In fact, the MPAA and the RIAA are up against that very freedom of the marketplace that they talk about so blithely: the freedom of we, the customers, to choose what we will and will not pay for.

But what about all those jobs that are being threatened, and all those content creators who are being deprived of income? This was the part that really tempted me to write a rant, because in fact the MPAA and the RIAA do not create content. Artists, and writers, and musicians, and actors, and directors, and so forth, create content. The corporations that make up the MPAA and the RIAA distribute content. That's all they do. The Internet has not stopped content creators; on the contrary, content creators are empowered by the Internet. I would not be publishing this blog if I had to make photocopies of every post and send them out by mail.

Of course, I don't expect to make money from this blog. What about people whose livelihood is creating content? The MPAA and RIAA want you to believe that these people are worse off because of "piracy". But what do the content creators themselves say? You'll note that the MPAA and RIAA most carefully don't quote them. That's because they would have to quote things like this, which would start people thinking about the way these corporations actually treat artists, as shown for example here. The truth is that the MPAA and RIAA do far more to deprive content creators of income than any amount of "piracy" could ever do.

(It's worth noting in this connection that the Hollywood "guilds", including the Screen Actors Guild, sent a letter supporting SOPA to several members of Congress yesterday, to coincide with the Internet blackout. More on that below.)

The opposition to these bills does appear to have had some effect beyond provoking the predictable responses discussed above. For example, the MPAA appears to have backed off on DNS filtering (this may have been the "major concern" referred to in the MPAA quote from the Ars Technica article early in this post), although the article notes that this may not last. However, they also make this interesting statement:

"The future of our industry relies on the Internet," [the MPAA's tech chief] said, noting that movie studios were increasingly selling their products to consumers via the Internet.

I'm not sure exactly what this is supposed to mean. If it just means that I can buy DVDs from Amazon instead of at the store, well, yes, I suppose it's true. But if there's a movie studio out there that is running a site like Netflix that streams video direct to people without making them jump through hoops, it's a very well-kept secret. Or perhaps the quote is referring to Netflix itself; but even here the studios appear to want to restrict the channel, as CNN Money noted in an article some time ago:

Netflix subscribers got a taste of the studios' new hardball approach last month, when hundreds of Sony (SNE) movies -- including high-profile titles like "The Social Network" and "Salt" -- abruptly vanished from Netflix's "watch now" catalog.

In a blog post, Netflix pinned the blame on a "temporary contract issue" between Sony and Starz, a pay cable network that licenses Sony's movie catalog. Back in 2008, Netflix struck a four-year deal with Starz that gave it streaming access to Starz' offerings.

But Starz' deal with Sony included a cap on the number of subscribers who can watch Sony movies online, a source told the LA Times. Once Netflix' audience exceeded the cap, the contract was null. Starz' catalog of Disney movies available for online streaming is on the verge of triggering a similar contractual cap, the newspaper reported.

So it really looks like the MPAA and RIAA simply don't understand what "selling via the Internet" actually means. More evidence of this is found in the MPAA's own blog post in response to a statement by the Obama Administration on anti-piracy legislation:

We also share the Administration's desire to encourage innovation. The American businesses that are victimized on a daily basis by global Internet thieves are among the most innovative industries in this nation and we welcome the Administration's support of these American businesses.

So the "most innovative industries in this nation", according to the MPAA, are industries that want to ship movies on plastic disks instead of as bits over the Internet, and want to restrict the ways that legitimate buyers of their products can use them (by, for example, region-encoding DVDs and restricting viewing of movies online), while companies like Google that have changed the way the entire world searches for information are just trying to take away American jobs by enabling "piracy":

Every day, American jobs are threatened by thieves from foreign-based rogue websites.

Which jobs? Later on, the post says "the 2.2 million Americans whose jobs depend on the film and television industries". But how many of those people are actually involved in creating content, as opposed to distributing it? And how many of them actually have a decent share in the profits? Of course the MPAA isn't sharing that information. Not only that, but how many of those jobs are actually threatened by "piracy", as opposed to being threatened by the inability of the very corporations who make up the MPAA to join the rest of us in the 21st century? Netflix and iTunes aren't stopping movies and music from being made.

This is why I think that organizations like the Screen Actors Guild are mistaken in supporting legislation like SOPA. They do so because they see their jobs being threatened if the system put in place by the MPAA and RIAA for making and distributing films and music is threatened. I understand their concern, but I think they're making a huge mistake by hitching their fates to the fates of organizations as hidebound as the MPAA and RIAA. I would be more likely to pay to see movies if I knew that my money was going to the people who actually make them instead of Sony and the other media corporations (and the few high-profile actors who can command huge fees--not that I mind the fees, but they are not representative of what most of the people who make movies or TV shows earn). As I said above, the actual content creators are not being well served by the existing system, and they ought to seriously consider ditching it, regardless of what the MPAA and RIAA think.

And for all of us as Internet users, I don't expect these bills to go away. The corporations whose business models are dead still have a lot of money, and they will continue to spend it to try to put the Internet genie back in the bottle. We should not let them.

Postscript

I said I wouldn't make this post into a rant, but the latest from Hollywood is just too good to pass up. Apparently the "medial moguls" are not pleased that (in what they see as a drastic turnaround from the previous Administration statement that I referred to above) President Obama has taken a stand against SOPA:

The moguls are reminding Obama et al that, in the words of one studio chief, "God knows how much money we've given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they're not supporting our interests. There's been no greater supporters of him than we've been from the first day and the first fundraisers continuing until he was elected. We all were pleased. And, at its heart institutionally, Hollywood supports the Democrats. Now we need the administration to support us."

In other words, as a number of commenters have noted, Hollywood is accusing President Obama of failing the classic test of an honest politician: he's been bought, but he won't stay bought.

But there actually is a more serious nugget here:

"The issue at hand -- piracy -- is a legitimate concern. But Google and those Internet guys have been swiftboating the entertainment industry by saying we're trying to shut down the Internet just because we don't want them to advertise pirated movies."

I'll be charitable and grant that the "studio chief" quoted here sincerely believes that he is not trying to shut down the Internet by trying to get SOPA and similar legislation passed. He's not a technical expert. But his sincere beliefs don't count; what counts is the actual effect that such legislation would have if passed. He appears to think that "Google and those Internet guys" could quite easily stop advertising pirated movies if they wanted to. Perhaps he thinks that Larry Page and Sergey Brin sit in a big room and supervise a bunch of people who assiduously review every ad by hand. Chris Dodd displays similar ignorance here:

"When the Chinese told Google that they had to block sites or they couldn't do [business] in their country, they managed to figure out how to block sites."

No, they agreed to shut down the pathway that had allowed people in China to access Google without going through the Chinese government's firewall, since they knew the Chinese government was going to shut it down anyway. They most certainly did not put in place any kind of system that could block individual sites.

Actually, of course, it would be impossible for Google, or any other Internet site of any size that allows users to post content, to police everything that they are hosting and still provide the immensely valuable services they provide. There is simply too much content and not enough time for humans to review even a tiny fraction of it; the processes have to be automated if they are going to work at all. And how can we expect computers to reliably tell "pirated" content from the rest, when humans often have to go through many levels of the judicial system to get a decision on the question?

Not to mention that, once you give people a way to shut down websites by claiming they are "rogue" sites, this ability will be abused, and the collateral damage from such abuse will be far worse than any possible damage from "piracy". I've mentioned this once before, but there are plenty of other examples, such as this and this. The first article talks about Universal Music's claims that popular "hip hop" sites and online magazines covering that music genre are "rogue" sites; so much for the "media moguls" being concerned about the actual "content creators", who, of course, want their music to be heard and talked about on these sites. The second talks about Monster Cable's claims that Costco and Sears, among others, are "rogue" sites.

So this really is a binary choice. Either we have valuable Internet services like the ones we have, or we have a locked-down system where everything else is sacrificed to the goal of stopping "piracy". And even then the goal won't be achieved. Mr. Dodd and the MPAA would like the US to be more like China in the way it controls the internet. But the International Intellectual Property Alliance, which counts among its members--wait for it--the MPAA and RIAA, is continually agitating about how much piracy there is in China. Of course, this may be as much a matter of the Chinese government not caring all that much about piracy as anything else. But that only underscores the point: Americans do care. As I noted in my last post, we don't want to steal. But we also don't want to pay for outmoded products, and we don't want to put up with inconvenience and being treated like potential pirates when we just want to watch a movie or listen to a song. Does that justify stealing? No. But the alternative is not for us to start buying what the MPAA and RIAA would like to sell us; the alternative is for us to spend our money somewhere else entirely. Trying to buy legislation is going to make that more likely, if anything, not less. Maybe the "media moguls" should stop trying to emasculate the Internet, and start working on giving their customers what they actually want.

Post-Postscript

The phenomenon of corporations seeking to buy legislation to prop up dead business models is not limited to the arts. A number of companies, notably Elsevier, have for years had a sweetheart deal with the US government allowing them strict publishing rights for scientific journals. Now the Internet has killed that business model too, but the companies don't want it to die, as PZ Myers reports:

Along with SOPA and PIPA, our government is contemplating another acronym with deplorable consequences for the free dissemination of information: RWA, the Research Works Act. This is a bill to, it says, "ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector", where the important phrase is "private sector" -- its purpose is to guarantee that for-profit corporations retain control over the publication of scientific information...

This is a blatant attempt to invalidate the NIH's requirement that taxpayer-funded research be made publicly available. The internet was initially developed to allow researchers to easily share information...and that's precisely the function this bill is intended to cripple.

PZ is a biologist, which is why he refers specifically to the NIH, but the same problem exists in other scientific fields. However, the physics and math communities got tired of this years ago and started arXiv, a site where preprints of scientific papers are made freely available. As you can see from the site's home page, other scientific fields have joined this effort as well. Papers on the arXiv can still be (and often are) published in journals, but until they are actually submitted, the scientists who write them have the publication rights, and they routinely publish preprints; in fact, they have to in order to enable the very "peer review" process that the journals claim to be facilitating. In the days before the Internet, preprints were circulated by mail, but of course the Internet makes it all much, much easier, just as it was intended to do (as PZ notes).

In other words, the very justification for the US government giving the sweetheart deals to journals in the first place, to "ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works", is no longer valid. Scientists no longer need these companies to help them share information, because of the Internet. The companies' response: try to buy legislation. Of course the journals' business model is in even worse shape than those of the film and record companies, because the latter can at least offer some additional value to customers in the form of particular actors or brands. The journals are pure middlemen; the only value they added to the process was distribution. (They claim that they also added value to the peer review process, by organizing and vetting editors and reviewers, but even before the arXiv site was stood up, the process had long been shifting in the direction of more and more review of preprints and less and less review of actual journal submissions. Now of course, the first question anyone, even a journal reviewer, asks about a paper is "is a copy on arxiv?" There is even a proposal to formalize this process by allowing signed reviews of papers to be linked to the papers themselves.)

All of this just reinforces the fact that any attempt on the part of government to interfere with things is fraught with risk. The interventions are usually reasonable at the time: in their day, the journals really did facilitate a lot of sharing of scientific information. But the interventions always end up long outliving their usefulness, and in the process they may do harm that more than outweighs the good they did originally. It's up to us, the people, to try to keep that from happening. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Posted at 19:56   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: computers, politics   |   Permalink
Mon, 09 Jan 2012

This is just a quick update to my previous posts on SOPA to collect a few more links of interest.

Read more...

Posted at 22:58   |   Category: rants   |   Tags: computers, politics   |   Permalink
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