January 10, 2012
There’s an important debate that’s beginning to emerge, the outcome of which promises to have a profound impact on the music industry. The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would allow the Justice Department to shut down (after due process) what are called “rogue” websites. Rogue websites like Pirate Bay are offshore or foreign sites whose main purpose is to offer pirated content (music, movies, etc) for sale or free download (with ads). SOPA would allow the Justice Department to require US-based ISPs to block the URLs of these rogue sites, effectively erasing them from the internet.
There is a carefully constructed campaign being waged against this proposed legislation. Major players such as Google are lobbying hard. And bloggers left and right are using (or misusing) terms like “net neutrality” as a way to frame the debate to be about FREEDOM OF SPEECH. They’ve been very effective in the campaign, as can be seen on tech related sites such as Cnet.com, where the editors seem to have come down hard against SOPA.
I’d like to offer another way of looking at this issue:
I think that music pirates are thieves. In some way they are like real pirates, in the sense that they work outside the reach of local law and steal with a sense of impunity. In the case of real pirates, we, that is, our governments fight back. We try to take their guns and bring them to justice. And when we take their guns you wouldn’t say that we’ve violated their Second Amendment rights, would you?
[Note: I've modified this post to clarify that I'm not trying to equate violent acts with music piracy as some have suggested. The point I'm trying to make is that First Amendment rights are not absolute.]
Blocking websites that traffic in pirated material is not an issue concerning free speech just as taking guns away from criminals is not a Second Amendment issue.
Another argument used by those who oppose SOPA (or any legislation that attempts to reign in rogue sites) is that if the government is given the right to shut down websites it won’t be long before they shut down any sites they find to be offensive. The internet is and always should be free from regulation. That’s what makes it so wonderful.
The logical fallacy here is called the Slippery Slope fallacy – the belief that if we agree to A then it’s necessarily just a matter of time before we agree to Z. Never mind that B through Y is a huge step, consisting of many intermediate steps, any one of which might be rejected as wrong or bad.
I agree that the internet should be free from regulation when it comes to free speech. After all, I’m a musician! I’ve devoted my life to personal expression and celebrate creative freedom every time I pick up my bass. That’s what music is all about.
But there’s a big difference between saying the internet must be free vs. saying it must be lawless.
I think theft is a violation of freedom. The net can never really be “neutral” or “free” as long as thieves threaten the livelihoods of musicians and large corporate interests like Google stack the deck against artists by supporting them.
[update, 2.2.13: a new report from USC lists Google and Yahoo as major ad pacers on piracy websites http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57561713-93/google-yahoo-accused-of-funding-piracy/]
I’m unsure if SOPA, in its current form, is the answer. But to paint this whole issue in broad strokes as being one of the freedom-of-speech-lovers (as represented by the awesome programmers at megaupload, etc) vs the fascists (as represented by the RIAA/Universal/Disney and other huge corps) is totally bogus and misleading.