22 January 2012
Last week, the unthinkable happened—Wikipedia went dark. People who needed a high-level overview of Klingon love poetry were simply out of luck.
This outage was not the result of a server failure; no hackers were involved. Rather, the blackout was an act of protest. It was a desperate act, and it has proven to be effective.
Two pieces of legislation, one in each house of Congress, have been delayed. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were designed to curb Internet piracy. This, in and of itself, is a worthy goal, but the Internet community has come out en masse to protest them.
In covering the conflict, news outlets throughout the world have unabashedly cast it as a battle between clueless, old-guard media barons and scofflaw technocrats. This version of events is simple and convenient, much akin to the old Western movie convention. The villains have black hats, the heroes have white hats, and everybody knows how they ought to feel and which side they ought to be on.
Not surprisingly, the whole affair is more complicated than that. Ultimately, it begins and ends with numbers.
The first numbers at issue are dollars. Though it has become fashionable these days to romanticize art, the truth is that the creation of art in any medium is a money-making enterprise. Some artists are content to starve, but no artist I have encountered sets out to do so on purpose.
It may well be that great writers write out of compulsion, as if the words were a fire in their bones. It may be that great musicians play because they don’t know how to stop. Regrettably, though, bare passion doesn’t pay the bills, and great artists need to eat and have a place to live just like the rest of us.
This is where we as consumers come in. By buying books, movies, music, and software, we enable content creators to create things and hone their craft.
Perhaps the people creating the content would be content to do it for love and by sheer force of will, would create great art while supporting themselves in some other way. The problem is that middlemen are necessary.
I don’t know Stephen King personally. He will never email me his latest story. However, publishing houses and record labels give me access to his work. These distributors must make money, too. What’s more, publishing anything is a gamble. The publishers are betting that people will pay for their content enough times to cover expenses. Piracy makes that bet less attractive.
One of the two jobs of copyright law is to protect the rights of content distributors and creators. By seeing to it that the right people get paid, copyright law helps ensure the continued production and distribution of art.
That said, copyright law has another equally important job—to specify the ways we can use copyrighted material and protect our right to do so. This is not a secondary issue. Fair-use doctrines protect educators and students under certain conditions and allow critics to excerpt works as well. Parody is also protected. These fair-use doctrines can be confusing. You may gain a better understanding of them by reading a comic produced by Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
SOPA and PIPA caused such ire because they emphasized one job of copyright law at the expense of the other. The Internet creates difficulty as far as legal action is concerned because of jurisdiction. Many sites that facilitate piracy are hosted on servers that aren’t in America. Thus, the U.S. government can’t simply shut them down. To address this issue, early versions of both bills called for a devious modification of Internet infrastructure.
Back to the numbers again. Every Internet site is composed of information stored on a remote computer called a “server.” When you visit a webpage, you are connecting to that server and downloading content to your computer. Your computer connects to that remote server by means of an Internet protocol [IP] address, a sequence of numbers like 255.255.255.0. If you knew the IP address of this site, for example, you could simply type it into the address bar in your web browser and the page would open. But those numbers are hard to remember. Thus, computers called “DNS [domain name system] servers” are used to translate URL [uniform resource locator] names, like “thebestschools.com,” into IP addresses. These servers have been compared to phonebooks.
Early versions of SOPA and PIPA would have compelled Internet-service providers to use DNS servers to block the IP addresses of sites that posted pirated content. This would have involved lying. The idea was to tell users of infringing sites that the website they wished to view did not exist, instead of translating its URL into an IP address.
This undermines a fundamental tenet of the Internet. We must be able to trust that DNS servers are routing us to the site we intend to visit. The potential to direct Internet users to fraudulent websites skyrockets when DNS servers cease to be reliable.
It would be a bit like replacing the phone numbers for strip clubs, liquor stores, all-you-can-eat buffets, and suspected crack houses with nonsense. In the short term, nobody could call those places without knowing the phone number, but the phonebook would no longer be a reliable guide to the phone system.
The lies would grow so confusing and convoluted that eventually the phonebook would become useless. What’s more, the system proposed by SOPA was to have been overseen by nameless, faceless bureaucrats—a sobering thought indeed. The bills also would have compelled search engines and ad services, as well as payment services, to refuse to connect to sites suspected of infringement.
As things stand now, if I were to post all of The Lord of the Rings to my personal blog, Blogger wouldn’t be shut down. My fingers would be incredibly sore from all the typing, and the infringing blog posts would be removed, but Blogger would remain active. With SOPA and PIPA, it’s unclear that sites like Blogger and YouTube would enjoy such protection.
Imagine the crushing liability. Most people in the world barely understand traffic laws; if the continued existence of websites that allow users to post content to them directly depends on the way every single Internet user in the entire world understands American intellectual property law, Facebook’s days are indeed numbered.
Don’t misunderstand. The Internet will die not with a bang, but with a whimper. They may never build a copyright infringement Gulag, but under legislation like SOPA and PIPA the Internet as we know it would simply become too expensive. Google, Yahoo, and the like would have to hire legions of lawyers just to search for copyrighted content. Free services like gmail would cease to be free. Sites we use every day would be non-operational much of the time. Using the Internet for crucial communications would become untenable. Welcome back, fax machines, it’s terrible to see you!
Users would suffer, too. People fear what they don’t understand. Few people understand the details of Internet infrastructure, but people use the Internet anyway, because they trust that it works. But if the Internet stopped working seamlessly, people would stop using it. This loss of users would then mean less ad revenue and more cost to the remaining users.
Political speech on the Internet would become impossible. Copyright law would be a weapon in the hands of governments everywhere to suppress dissent. No government official would say: “Your anti-abortion stance is illegal, so we’re shutting down your site.” Instead, SOPA and PIPA would swing down like the hammer of Thor, and sites containing unpopular ideas would be under perpetual copyright investigation.
When it was all over, the Internet would belong to people who knew how to evade SOPA and PIPA—and to government officials.
As of right now, both bills have been shelved. Copyright law exists to stop thievery and protect you. Learn all you can about your rights as a student or teacher to use copyrighted material. If SOPA or PIPA passes, those rights may be an interesting bit of historical trivia for the grandchildren.