Can SOPA, H.R.3261, meet its goals?
Well, it’s stated goal is to stop pirates, internet pirates, or to turn an old phrase from Good Will Hunting, Pirates: Pixels not Pistols? Pirates: Bits not Bullets? Something like that, you may be able to do better. [Note: by posting that link, under SOPA I could now be potentially found to be in violation of “fair use” and fined, as could the kind host of this site who is a friend of mine from a very long way back. Sorry, Kit.]
It attempts to do that through a few mechanisms which are described at the video on The Atlantic website [Thanks to Pal-Through-the-Internets, You Study Politics, Right? for the link]. The video also gives you a clear reason why the law won’t work as intended.
The Atlantic article also linked above also runs through a few metaphors for why the effects of SOPA are misguided, so I thought I would present a slightly different metaphor, one that is closer to what SOPA intends to be, but also highlights where SOPA falls short. My story also deals with pirates: air waves, not ocean waves (Still not there? At least I’m trying.)
In the earlier days of rock ‘n’ roll, much of the success of musicians depended on pirate radio stations to reach their target audience. In America rock stations were banned from commercial airspace and so DJs set up AM towers in Mexico and on late nights they could cover ~1/3 of the nation. In England, airspace was dominated by the BBC monopoly, and the BBC had a mission of bringing to England what it needed and not what it wanted. For the most part that meant, in the narrow vision of the time, live big band music and not, for the love of all that was holy, recorded rock ‘n’ roll and the pattering DJs that marketed the stuff.
So adventurous souls got together and set up broadcast stations on, among other things, boats they parked off the English coast in international waters. And all was well…until it wasn’t.
In the Summer of Love (England’s was in 1967 too) Parliament passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. You may already know about this because of the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie Pirate Radio. The goal of The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act was to make these pirate stations unworkable by making them unlivable. Companies that advertised on pirate radio stations could be punished. Any individual who helped the pirates could be punished. Eventually pirates would have to get food and water…and that’s if they took long enough that food and water was a concern. I mean, you have to be very committed to the idea of playing the latest from Small Faces to give up a decent meal and a hot shower.
You can see that this is largely the model that SOPA is built off of. It also makes it clear why it won’t work.
The internet is not radio. In order to get radio waves to a place where they can be picked up you have to be…somewhere…and and not just anywhere, either, but somewhere nearby. To get the latest Cliff Richard single to Brighton, you have to be somewhere near Brighton. To get the latest Phil Spector creation to Venice Beach, Newfoundland is a bad choice for your pirate station.
Consequently radio pirates could be located and laid siege to. The British didn’t need to end radio in order to end rock. They just needed to isolate the pirates, which they did by threatening to punish their life lines.
But Bit Pirates (hmm, yeah, that totally doesn’t work, does it?) can be anywhere...in the world. They live happily in countries that already don’t care about our laws, countries where we can enforce nothing. If they want a hot shower (and if their plumbing situation allows for it) they walk to their bathroom. If they want a good meal, they go to a nice restaurant. Sure, clearly, advertising helps them maintain their sites, but even if advertising goes away, they can just go get jobs to support their cause. And that’s if they don’t have access to the black and gray markets. In order to make some money off pirated music, movies, books etc, they don’t have to offer them for free, they just have to offer them cheaper than the retail price, which, as we know, is probably too high, especially for a world market which has a lower standard of living than we do here in the mighty USA.
I should briefly add, by the way, that this is why the law won’t work, even if you agree with its stated goal. Always remember when you analyze a policy that all policies are goal-oriented. It’s goal should be clearly stated and achievable, but most importantly, the law should address the concern for which it was written. The fact that SOPA so clearly falls short of that third, critical, concern, is a red flag that something nefarious is at work. Search “SOPA” and it’s impossible not to find articles like the one at The Atlantic that are against the bill because it is likely to have unintended negative effects while not actually addressing its stated goal. This is so clear, and so well known it is virtually impossible not to cast aspersions on the bills primary corporate architects: the beleaguered music and movie industries.
But very good arguments could be made for why even the stated goals of the bill should be questioned. Piracy is not just a criminal problem, but an economic one. With the right creative sales mechanism the music and movie industries could force their way into the pirate market, but in their efforts to protect old world profits through old world channels, they force the inevitability of piracy. It’s hardly a wonder that industries so bereft of good ideas on how to make money are reaching back to the mid-century mark for effective policy solutions.