The Internet isn’t just pipes; it’s a belief system

Draconian new anti-piracy laws that are being pushed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives are about more than just an academic debate over different legislative methods for fighting copyright infringement. They make it clear that media and content companies are fundamentally opposed to the way the Internet works. These laws are being promoted by media and entertainment conglomerates as a way to fight what they see as massive content theft, but in order to combat that evil, they are effectively trying to get Congress to take over the Internet — and trample on important principles like freedom of speech as well.
As the Stop Online Piracy Act — and its cousin the E-PARASITE Act — have worked their way through the Senate and the House, a loose coalition of technology companies and open-Internet advocates have come together to oppose the legislation — including companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo, some of whom appeared before a committee hearing on Wednesday to discuss the proposed laws, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology (PDF link) and even a group of civil-rights agencies. Mozilla, the open-source browser project, changed its home page to lobby against the new laws, and a number of civil liberties and open-Internet advocates made Wednesday what they called “American Censorship Day” and promoted a video about the evils of the proposed legislation (embedded below).

Google’s copyright counsel Katherine Oyama testified before the committee about the dangers of the new laws, which she said would fundamentally conflict with the principle of “safe harbor” enshrined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and allow — in fact, require — private companies such as Internet providers to “disappear” sites from the Internet after even an allegation of infringement. In her prepared testimony, Oyama said while Google opposes piracy, it could not support the bill because:

[I]t would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that could require monitoring of web sites and social media. Moreover, we are concerned that the bill sets a precedent in favor of Internet censorship.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN reporter and co-founder of the Global Voices project at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote a passionate opinion piece for the New York Times about the dangers of what she said was a U.S. equivalent to China’s repressive “Great Firewall” laws, which severely restrict what Internet users can search for and which websites they can visit. In some ways, MacKinnon said, the U.S. version would be even worse because it would allow private companies — copyright holders and payment companies such as PayPal and Visa — to cut off websites on even a suspicion of copyright infringement, without the need to prove any such charges in court. Said MacKinnon:

The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial… the intention is not the same as China’s Great Firewall, a nationwide system of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar.

This is about the fundamental principle of an open Internet

The issues behind laws like SOPA and E-PARASITE are much bigger than just a tussle between tech companies and content creators over some proposed legislation. As Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures says a blog post, what these laws do is expose a fundamental disconnect between proponents of an open Internet and companies and legislators who would rather create their own kind of Internet: a version of the web that’s less chaotic, more respectful, and most importantly, a lot easier to control. As Burnham notes, that kind of internet would make things a lot easier for content producers and entertainment conglomerates, but it would remove or imperil a lot of the things that make the internet so valuable:

The Internet is not just a series of pipes. It’s core architecture embeds an assumption about human nature. The Internet is designed to empower individuals not control them. It assumes that the if individuals are empowered, they will do the right thing the vast majority of the time.

The Internet by its nature is — among other things — a giant copyright-infringement machine. Because anyone can grab whatever content they wish and change it, mash it up with other content and instantly republish, it’s hugely frightening and threatening for many media companies and content owners. For industries whose entire value proposition depends on their control over the flow of information, this kind of chaotic environment is the worst thing they could possibly imagine, which is why they continually push for legislative solutions such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and now the even more draconian versions of SOPA and E-PARASITE.
But the important point being made by Burnham, the EFF and other opponents of these proposed laws is that the benefits that we associate with the Internet — the massive explosion of individual creativity, the thousands of content-related and media startups and services, the “democracy of distribution” that Om has written about that allows anyone to become a publisher, the real-time information flows that have helped create revolutions across the Arab world, and so on — wouldn’t be possible without the downsides that content industries are so afraid of. The two go hand-in-hand. They are the yin and yang of the web.
That doesn’t mean we should encourage piracy, or deprive content owners of the tools to fight it when it occurs, but the reality is that they have those tools already in the DMCA and other existing legislation. SOPA and the E-PARASITE Act aren’t just an expansion of those tools, they would alter the balance of power on the internet in fundamental ways and threaten the openness and freedom that generates a lot of the web’s value, both for businesses and for society as a whole. That’s not a trade we should make lightly, if at all.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Ryan Franklin