On SOPA and Policing the Web

At this point, I doubt these infamous acronyms need much introduction, given the ubiquity of news related to the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act. You’d have to go out of your way to avoid hearing any mention or debate about it, especially from within social media.

For the record, I try to avoid discussing current events on this blog – the deluge of instant information would render my articles obsolete very quickly. Besides, you can find of plenty of up-to-date news about the subject elsewhere (except Wikipedia, which as of this posting, has blacked itself out in protest). Instead, I want to briefly discuss the more enduring issues of “net neutrality” and freedom of speech on the web, a subject I’ve visited once or twice before.
 
Like most people of my generation, I’m firmly committed to the idea that the internet should be an open marketplace where ideas, opinions, and data are freely exchanged between participants (I’m a strong proponent for making the web more accessible to more people). The greatest strength of the internet, and indeed the source of its allure, is its role as a venue where almost anything goes: you can seek out almost any activity, interest, person, or information you want. There’s quite literally something for everyone, and this groundbreaking capacity to connect to one another and pool together the virtual sum of human knowledge has been a great boon to our increasingly interconnected societies. Few of us could imagine existing without it.
 
Of course, like any new innovation or technology, there is a propensity for unsavory exploitation. Humans are just as inventive about the ways to abuse and misuse our creations as we are about making them in the first place. A lot of the information that gets dispersed can be unethical, corrupting, or illegal – child pornography, libel, or simple misinformation, to name a few examples. And the web is a great tool for connecting predatory individuals to their targets, whether it’s a sexual predator seeking out minors, or cyber-thieves looking to access someone’s bank account (if not the bank itself). Plenty of terrorist groups and crime syndicates make use of the web too, whether it’s to coordinate their illicit activities or recruit more members.
 
In other words, the web is a double-edged sword, just as liable for use in misdeeds as it is for being applied to benign pursuits, like education or social networking. This is hardly a shocking revelation. Even the least internet savvy person knows the potential for harm or mistreatment – nearly everyone has run up against viruses or the itinerant internet troll, to name the relatively more innocuous examples.
 
Online piracy is perhaps the most controversial and well-known manifestation of this fact, especially since SOPA and its ilk came along. The web may be famous in facilitating a wellspring of creative and conceptual output, but it’s also the place where such ideas and intellectual products are stolen, duplicated, corrupted, or wrongfully disseminated. Instant and easy access applies to nefarious types as well. So it’s understandable the individuals and companies would want to product their rightful creations, be it films, songs, artwork, patents, and the like.
 
But trying to enforce some sort of centralized legal and security system upon the web, as SOPA would aim to do, is not the way to do it. At best, it simply wouldn’t work, and at worst, it’d be overkill. The web just isn’t suited for a catch-all form of policing.
 
For starters, demarcating such a protocol would be difficult enough as it is, let alone even beginning to implement it. Part of the problem with SOPA and similar legislation dealing with the web is that its language is both vague and broad – as some have read it, the act could potentially allow the government, at the behest of complainants that include big media corporations, to shut down entire websites accused of being complicit in piracy. As with all forms of law, interpretation matters a lot, and there’s a risk that SOPA could be needlessly restrictive. To drive the point further, most tech experts have noted the archaic or otherwise incorrect terminology used throughout the bill, demonstrating how little regulators actually know about what they intend to regulate. That doesn’t bode well for efficacy.
 
This leads to my next point: trying to impose any sort of restrictions, well-meaning or otherwise, wouldn’t be very efficient. Pirates, hackers, and other skilled web users could very easily set up shop elsewhere; each new web domain that is shut down will be replaced by another somewhere else, sometimes within the same day. Every criminal activity innovates and adapts in response to new and improved efforts, and web-based transgressions are certainly no exception (especially since the same kind of technology is used by both sides). Trying to establish some sort of command and control over the constantly expanding internet just isn’t tenable.
 
This isn’t to say that piracy, cyber theft, and other crimes shouldn’t be addressed. Even the Wild West, to which the internet is compared to, had some modicum of order (its rate of lawlessness and crime is pretty exaggerated anyway). Laws dealing with crimes in the physical world should apply to their cyber counterparts as well (take theft or stalking for example). But such methods need to be left to the private sector to sort out. Companies, individuals, and public institutions should either fend for themselves or work together on their own accord to protect their content from attack or exploitation. We’ve seen dozens of security organizations offer their services to protect everything from databases to personal computers, while many enterprising groups have gone so far as to provide such programs for free. It’s no different from the way communities set up a neighborhood watch, or how individuals hire private security forms. People find their own way to get around obstacles, which the internet helps facilitate, thanks to its boundless supply of resources and networks.
 
Ultimately, there’s no stopping criminal activity, on or off the web. We must do the best we can with the resources available, but trying to curtail internet freedom is missing the forest for the trees. As we’ve seen in real life, responding to wrongdoings with an authoritarian approach simply doesn’t work, and if anything it makes the problem worse – or creates new ones, such as if innocuous activity becomes restricted as collateral damage. The web’s freedom is its greatest strength. The same open-endedness that has given unsavory types free reign to steal or terrorize will also allow others to take matters into their own hands. Let the internet be.
 
Appropriately, the web’s capacity to mobilize and inform the masses has greatly contributed to the widespread condemnation that has led to the bill’s demise, at least for the meantime.

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