Writings of a techie wizard
Tue, 22 Nov 2011
I've posted twice now about the Protect IP Act, or SOPA (the former is the Senate version, the latter is the House version), which is the latest attempt on the part of big media companies to put a stranglehold on the Internet. As you can see, since this is the third time around on this topic, I'm not going to mince words. I've mentioned some of the damage this bill will cause in previous posts, but it's worth taking a look at the Wikipedia article on SOPA linked to above and seeing all the different issues raised under "Ramifications". (The Wiki article also has lots of good reference links.) If you haven't already done so, and you are a US citizen, I strongly urge you to contact your elected representatives and demand that they make sure this bill doesn't pass. Two good sites to help you do that are the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Demand Progress. You can also go to the Stop Censorship site to register your opposition to the bill and to put your name on a list of citizens that Senator Ron Wyden intends to read from the Senate floor if he is forced to filibuster the Senate bill.
Having got that out of the way, I can now vent in a more leisurely fashion. (This post is filed under "rants", but the previous paragraph is not just venting, as my rants usually are. The issue is a serious one, so I wanted to get the serious part out of the way first; but that's only a paragraph and the rest of this post is, well, longer, so into the "rants" category it goes.) Today I came across a blog post comparing SOPA to China's "Great Firewall", which is the Chinese government's massive infrastructure dedicated to controlling what the Chinese people can and can't see on the Internet. The post is worth a read, if for no other reason than that it uses the same word I did above, "stranglehold", to describe the aim of this bill. :-) (It also has a number of good reference links.)
What gets me, though, is that as you'll see if you read the post, some US lawmakers actually think that the fact that legislation like this would make the US more like China in its control of the Internet is a feature, not a bug. If you're a person of Heinlein's class two, like me, this sort of thinking just seems so far out in left field that it's hard to understand how it can survive and even thrive. Don't these people understand that the Internet is not something you can control? Don't they realize that the Internet is individual empowerment, individual freedom, individual choice, in just about the purest form that those things have ever existed? The United Nations realizes it; as the blog post I linked to above notes, the UN has declared free and uncensored Internet access to be a basic human right. Shouldn't that be enough to stop this kind of legislation from even being considered? Hey, folks, um, trying to put into law something that the UN considers a violation of human rights is probably a bad idea, okay? It's not as though there aren't plenty of other pressing matters to attend to, like, say, trying not to let the country's credit rating slip again.
But of course the proponents of this legislation do realize all the above. That's why they're trying to get it passed. The analogy with the Chinese government is far closer than it might seem. China is the classic example of a country run by people of Heinlein's class one; the government wants to control everything. The United States of America was supposed to be the exact opposite: the government was supposed to control as little as possible. But it's really, really tough to sustain that vision in the face of harsh reality. The US government in 1790 didn't have much of a choice, because the country was so large and the technology of the time so limited. The pattern ever since has been for the amount of control the Federal government exerts to increase, to the point where today we have laws and regulations covering all manner of things that would have been unimaginable as subjects of Federal interest to an American of 1790 (or even one of 1890, for that matter). But at least, for most of that time, each individual law or regulation appeared to be a good idea in itself; what caused trouble was the cumulative effect of all of them, combined, of course, with the law of unintended consequences.
Now, though, we have something different: we have a law that, I would venture to say, looks like a bad idea to most Americans, and yet it won't go away. It's not the first such law; take a look at many of the laws and regulations that cover the financial industry, and you will see the same pattern (and, not coincidentally, a lot of reasons for the economic meltdown we have been experiencing). It's certainly not a new thing to have a bunch of large corporations with outdated business models trying to buy legislation that will prop up those business models, regardless of the damage it might cause elsewhere, using the cover story that it will "protect society" from something or other. We heard the same story from the financial industry all the way up to the big crash, and now we're hearing from them that we need more regulations to "protect" us from another one. (Remember the classic definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?) And we're hearing the same story in the fight over the US budget and whether or not the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire; we're told that keeping the tax cuts will "protect" small businesses and help innovation, when in fact a number of commentaries, for example these articles in USA Today and Business Week, have argued that letting the tax cuts expire would not hurt small businesses at all, and might even help them, since the current rules actually define "small business" in a way that excludes a lot of the businesses that are actually (a) small, and (b) innovating, while including a lot of entities that are really more tax shelters for the wealthy than anything else.
So why am I picking this particular issue, a free and uncensored Internet, as the one we really, really need to take a stand on? Because with a free and uncensored Internet, it's a lot easier to fight all those other battles. Information is power, and the big media companies who are trying to put a stranglehold on the Internet know it. So do lawmakers who would love to give the US government the power to shut down sites like Wikileaks. But we in the USA are supposed to understand that we, the people, have the power. We get to decide how information flows. The Internet is our medium for making those decisions. If we want to say something, we post it. If we like something someone else says, we link to it. If we don't like what someone else says, we refute it. We don't censor it. We fight bad information with better information, not with a Great Firewall. Ultimately, if we don't like what's on a given website, we exercise our own freedom of choice by surfing somewhere else. But we need a free and uncensored Internet to do all this. Don't let it be taken away.
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