There’s a lot of hoopla going around on the Internet, opposing the proposed SOPA and PIPA acts meandering through Congress. As far as I can tell this is completely warranted, as the bills have something to do with giving the government power to blackout websites that are merely accused of facilitating illegal activities, including anything happening to come from its user-generated content. Really, however, the bills seem to just be lobbying from the entertainment industry in another flailing attempt to crack down on online file-sharing.
Now I don’t know how much of the hysteria would really happen if these bills went through, but the government already thinks it has the power to seize domains suspected of illegally sharing files, because they did just that to dozens of sites in November 2010. (It seems like most of the sites just moved out of jurisdiction.) So if the government is already using scary powers to seize websites, I really don’t want to explicitly give them permission to use more.
But wait – it gets worse! One of the biggest problems with expanding the government’s power to do things is that it increases the potential for abuse. And yesterday I read an infuriating article about one of the domains that was seized last year. Apparently ICE seized a popular hip-hop blog that supposedly only shares files purposefully sent by artists and labels for promotion purposes. But the government put up its “warning graphic on the site, suggesting its operators were criminals, and then refused to comment at all about the case.”
The government ignored seizure laws by stalling and “refusing to respond to Dajaz1’s filing requesting the domain be returned… Rather than actually provide some sort of belated due process in the form of an adversarial hearing, it continued to deny any and all due process by secretly (even to Dajaz1’s own lawyer) extending the seizure without any way to challenge those extensions.” After a year, just as mysteriously, the government gave the site back to the original domain owners – just this week. There’s an excellent Wired article with more details about the events; it suggests by omission that at least some of the files may truly have been illegal, but that doesn’t excuse the stalling and stymieing by the government.
So do you see what happened here? Congress is considering whether or not to give the government more power to shut down websites – and we already have a blatant example of the government abusing the power it already has by falsely shutting down a site, never pressing charges, denying all attempts to challenge the seizure, and finally quietly backing down after a year. This is not abuse in the good old fashioned corrupt sense; this is just plain incompetence. And it’s dangerously unjust for all domain owners in the United States to have their livelihoods subject to government incompetence.
I think I understand the frustrations of the entertainment industry – at least on some level. Leaving aside all the arguments about the money not really going to the artists or alleged evidence that illegal downloading is just sampling that leads to future purchases or whatever, there is no doubt that album sales have dropped off a cliff in the last decade and that the record labels are floundering. Unfortunately for them, technology has advanced to the point that it’s extremely difficult to enforce the existing laws about copyrighted music. But unfortunately for us citizens, attempts to enforce those laws require an increasing parade of completely unacceptable and dangerous infringements on the personal freedoms we are supposed to have.
I have said before that it seems like most attacks on personal freedoms seem to have roots in the “War on Drugs.” But I forgot that there is another weed growing in our garden, and its initial are R.I.A.A. It is inexplicable to me that the Department of Homeland Security – supposedly created to combat terrorism after 9/11 – is now involved in both, and it reeks of Orwellian manipulation. I am sorry that there are millions of people that feel entitled to obtain copies of musicians’ works without paying anything for it. I do not know what is the best way to prevent that, or if there even is a way. But giving the government more power over the Internet will not only do very little to curtail piracy in the fast-moving world of technology. It will also expand the potential for abuse of the Internet through corruption and incompetence, and we now have evidence that such abuse is already happening (though I’m glad at least one senator seems to be looking for answers). SOPA and PIPA aren’t solutions. They’re nightmares.