The past few months have seen a flurry of political activity on campus. No, I’m not talking about the aldermanic election or the YPU’s debates. Rather, I’m talking about how Yale has been atwitter (get it? … Twitter!) about the impending DOOM and OPPRESSION of the Stop Online Piracy Act.
SOPA (really, they couldn’t have done better than SOPA? I’m pretty sure that means soup in Spanish) is a bill in the House of Representatives that would provide authority for the Justice Department to crack down on websites that illegally distribute copyrighted materials such as music, TV shows and movies through standard judicial procedure.
Make no mistake: online piracy is serious. According to a study commissioned by the AFL–CIO, online piracy costs the U.S. economy $12.5 billion in lost revenue, $2 billion in lost wages and around 70,000 jobs — annually. For any economy, but especially for one struggling through a shaky recovery, those are substantial losses. To give those numbers some gravity, this means layoffs for parents and working people. And for all those future Ricky Martins, it means making a living as a musician is harder than ever.
While SOPA, like every other piece of legislation, was not perfect in its original form, it has since been substantially amended and narrowed to address legitimate concerns over its once-broad language. But still, misinformation about the bill persists, meaning many people stand in opposition based on irrelevant concerns. The following are some common misconceptions about SOPA’s implications, should it pass.
A common complaint: “My Google searches won’t be open anymore — Google will have to censor what it shows!” Guess what? Your Google search isn’t truly open now. Major websites can manipulate Google’s algorithm to skew results. If you don’t believe me, try googling “Rick Santorum” and look at what happens — surely this is a skewed search result. Plus, the idea that Google is some free-speech deity is ridiculous: in China, Google censors its content to appease the Chinese government.
Another worry: “Wikipedia and Facebook can be shut down if someone posts copyrighted material!” Another whopper. SOPA specifically targets websites that are known to be “principally” or “substantially” dedicated to theft. Even if 1,000 editors on Wikipedia wrote articles using copyrighted material, Wikipedia would still not be considered a website principally devoted to copyright theft. SOPA would thus have absolutely nothing to do with Wikipedia.
What’s more, SOPA only applies to foreign websites, not websites that end in, for example, .com, .net, .org, or .gov. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I checked, but Wikipedia is in that group. So, while you are still not advised to cite Wikipedia for your final paper, you can still use it to find out who the heck David Ben Gurion was.
The last concern: “The Domain Name System blocking technique featured in SOPA threatens the very fabric of the Internet!” Are you kidding? That was removed from the bill last week. And anyway, DNS blocking is widespread and already in use. You know what it’s used for in the U.S.? To block child porn websites. In Germany, DNS blocks neo-Nazi websites. France uses it to block online gambling sites. If that’s the fabric of the Internet you use, my bad. But for the rest of us, I don’t think the Internet will implode.
Finally, what’s truly disappointing about the debacle that will likely end in SOPA’s death is that the bill’s critics have, in the name of promoting a free Internet, exploited the power that comes with that free Internet in the very worst way possible.
The Web should be an open forum safe from censorship and used to share ideas, products and experiences. But the misinformation spread by major websites like Wikipedia and Google undermines that very forum. They have used the name of an open Internet to spread false information.
The Internet has connected the world. It was crucial to the Arab Spring. The freedom it harbors promotes the very ideals of democracy that, as Americans, we treasure. Google, one of the biggest and most profitable corporations on Earth, has thrived because of that cyberfreedom. But is the Internet a free and open frontier if the most powerful websites abuse it to spread lies?
There are no enforceable laws yet that protect the work of musicians, writers and other artists online. You can’t smash a Tiffany’s window and steal a ring for your fiancée without repercussions. But, without the added enforcement enabled by SOPA, you can steal “My Heart Will Go On” to play at your wedding without being punished. Stealing is stealing, whether it’s on the street or online, and people deserve to be paid for their hard work.
If SOPA were passed, Google would still make money, musicians would finally be paid, the Internet would not collapse and the world would not come to an end.
Sam Cohen is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.