Beware Of Zombie PIPA And SOPA
But as bad as this contempt for the concerns of their constituents is, members of Congress at least have to run for reelection, so they can’t be too dickish about the matter. Not so very interested third parties, by which I mean, the industries lobbying for such legislation. The tech world, has largely been against it, but it doesn’t provide a unified front the way that film, via the MPAA, or the record industry, via the RIAA, do. This is further complicated by the fact that the video game industry is beginning to see itself as a branch of entertainment rather than tech, and has behaved accordingly, with some of the biggest entities in gaming flirting with support for the bills before mostly walking that back. Rest assured, the ESA will support the next SOPA/PIPA, and likely with less reservation than they did this time.
And even if they don’t, Congress is very elderly – the current average age is 57 years old. That means a considerable number of extremely old people who don’t use the bloopity bleepity machines that play Pac-Man or have a clue how the Internet even works. The problem is so bad that they’re even embarrassed to be seen as people who would even know about technology, much less understand it. The debate over SOPA and PIPA was riddled with constant reassurances from
idiots members of congress who wanted everyone to know that, really you guys, they aren’t nerds. Whether they think it, or simply assume their constituents believe that there is something shameful about being smart, successful and expert in the things that have transformed civilization*, it’s disturbing to see the people in control of the most powerful country on earth so obstinately unaware of the culture they’re sworn to protect.
But if they don’t know anything about computers, they do listen to music and watch movies, which makes lobbyists for those industries well-placed to take advantage. This explains why, though SOPA and PIPA were ostensibly created to respond to a specific impending threat, in this case “international online piracy” or just plain old IP theft and copyright infringement, they were stacked with provisions that went well beyond what could be reasonably required to stop the threat. Really nothing more than the fulfillment of a large wishlist of powers long desired by their supporters**, the bills’ failure has got to feel like a huge failure.
To get a sense of how huge, look at the way the MPAA has acted. A key player in the battle over IP that has waged since the earliest years of the Internet, the MPAA were widely regarded to believe that Copyright Term Extension Act, the infamous “Mickey Mouse Act” that essentially grants IP owners permanent copyright, was too lenient. If perpetual copyright in all but name is too soft, the Internet must feel like a gaping wound that never heals.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the MPAA has spent millions over the years trying to get congress to pass a law like PIPA and SOPA. They’ve failed every time, however. How to resolve? By hiring former Senator Chris Dodd, now freed from the obligations of elected office, as their new CEO. Dodd lobbied hard for PIPA and SOPA, almost as though his job depended on it, which it probably did, judging by his behavior before and after the bills’ defeat. In December, he actually advanced The People’s Republic of China as a positive model for the US to emulate. That’s amazing coming from someone who used to style himself a civil liberties guy, but it only got worse when the bills headed for the great committee debate in the sky.
“Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support,” Dodd said on January 20th, “need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake.” Yes, it’s nice the way made sure his tenure at the head of the Movie Industry’s lobbying arm got at least one Godfather reference in, but his creepy contempt for democracy is jarring. “Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk,” he said, “and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.” Any doubts that Dodd was hired specifically for his ability to lobby his former Senate colleagues in order to get something like PIPA passed can thus be quickly dispelled.
My point: if you’re concerned about future versions of these proposed laws, you should pay very close attention to how the MPAA proceeds. Particularly with regard to Dodd’s position.
Finally, even if SOPA and PIPA aren’t brought back in some form or another, their defeat may be meaningless after all. There’s an even more terrifying lock-down on online rights that looks far likelier to become law: the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. ACTA is a proposed treaty that sounds more like a Bond villain plot. It would establish international standards on the enforcement of IP rights, and it has the potential to do to the Internet what the WTO has done to labor and environmental standards. To quote from the link:
ACTA encourages service providers to collect and provide information about suspected infringers by giving them “safe harbor from certain legal threats”. Similarly, it provides for criminalization of copyright infringement on a commercial scale, granting law enforcement the powers to perform criminal investigation, arrests and pursue criminal citations or prosecution of suspects who may have infringed on copyright on a commercial scale. It also allows criminal investigations and invasive searches to be performed against individuals for whom there is no probable cause, and in that regard weakens the presumption of innocence and allows what would in the past have been considered unlawful searches.
ACTA is bad news for all of us if it goes into effect. And it just might. It continues to gain new signatories, including Poland on January 19th. Yikes. And note that according to the US Constitution, treaties signed by our government have the force of law just like anything Congress passes. If this treaty takes effect, it will effectively override key constitutional protections that were at the heart of SOPA and PIPA opposition. And there will be little recourse. It could be struck down by challenge to the Supreme Court, but determining who to sue will be difficult, hampering such actions. Furthermore, once trade agreements are signed, they are next to impossible to walk back. NAFTA, for example, is incredibly unpopular. And it will probably never be renegotiated.
In other words, gamers, we’d better stock up on whisky and Tums. Constant vigilance is not only required, it’s the only way we’ll live moving forward.
If you’re interested in getting more involved with these issues, a great place to start, as always, is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
* Also, a hard ‘nerd’? Really? Even bulimic celebutantes claim to be ‘nerds’ these days. It’s cool to be smart now, guys! We promise!
**Yes, this is exactly like the USA PATRIOT ACT.