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If you don’t know what the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is, now might be a good time to start learning. SOPA, along with the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were two corresponding House and Senate Bills that, had they passed, would have granted the Attorney General authority to shut down and blacklist internet websites who violate copyright agreements or allow the illegal distribution of copyrighted content. For the moment, these bills are gone, delayed indefinitely and sent to the bowels of the United States Congress to be redrafted and retooled––and thank goodness for it. Two weeks ago the user-driven encyclopedia site Wikipedia was voluntarily down for the day. This was in response to SOPA. In fact, January 18th was internet blackout day for many popular websites, a collaborated message to the sponsors of SOPA (and PIPA) that the internet was against the legislation. This was for good reason. SOPA was a bad bill, and the most cutting criticism you could levy against it was that it wasn’t drafted with internet users at large in mind; instead, it was a corporate carpet bomb against internet pirates, uploaders and downloaders of copyrighted content on the internet who have consistently worked around the attempts to thwart their thefts. It was a messy assault against the few at the expense of the many. SOPA had the power to require internet service providers (companies we pay for access to the internet) to block websites that wrongly associated in any way with copyrighted content. The implications reach far: larger sites and corporations could muscle out other sites just by claiming those smaller sites were in violation of copyright. Never mind the large swaths of legitimate content you wipe out: if a site houses any form of copyrighted content, take them down. The internet under SOPA would have become a much less equal place. The power of SOPA was overwhelmingly bent towards companies and corporations whose bread and butter are selling media and intellectual property to consumers. Organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) were the main benefactors, and coincidentally one of the biggest funders to Lamar Smith, the House Republican in Texas who’s credited with drafting the bill. In the legitimate quest to stop pirates, SOPA was a bill that fumbled the internet as a democratizing tool in favor of large corporations. But why should you care? What if you don’t use the internet, or only use it for email or small tasks? Care because the internet is the medium of the 21st century. It’s a near-instant network of information that has, quite literally, revolutionized the way the world works. SOPA is concerning because it’s one of the first meaty piece of legislation that attempts to understand this fundamental change in the way our world, and it does so badly. That’s alarming. Besides being primarily influenced by large corporations, SOPA is emblematic of an insulated Congress, men and women who might not be in tune with the needs of the people, or even the needs of the century. SOPA was a caveman’s solution to a modern, recent problem. Its existence says something about the people who drafted it. Thankfully, Utah’s elected leaders realized SOPA’s Orwellian implications. Sanpete’s US House Representative Jason Chaffetz said in the House Judiciary Committee during the bill’s markup back in December that he was concerned that Congress was approaching a legitimate problem with the wrong remedy. “We’re going to perform surgery without consulting a doctor,” Chaffetz said. “Bring in the nerds,” he said, the “doctors” for the subject. Both Utah Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch have voiced their disapproval of PIPA (SOPA’s Senate twin). Hatch even went so far as to withdraw his co-sponsorship of the bill, saying it “it is simply not ready for prime time and both sides must continue working together to find a better path forward.” We should be thankful our representatives saw this for what it was. In reality, the problem isn’t that the government wants a way to protect copyright on the internet––that’s a legitimate fight––but like Chaffetz said, SOPA’s approach was the wrong remedy. The SOPA issue illustrates the inability of gargantuan companies to react to a changing market. The way to solve piracy isn’t to tell people to stop pirating, it’s to find a palatable way to offer content. We treat information differently now. This is 2012, a long time past when we were willing to sit through five minutes of commercial break. Nowadays we’ll Tivo it, DVR it, and skip through those commercials. We’ll watch shows on Hulu or Netflix the week after rather than restrict ourselves to a TV schedule. I think it’s fair to say that most pirates are pirates of convenience. They recognize the importance of supporting content they enjoy but find themselves deterred by the frustrations companies cause in the delivery of that content. These people aren’t stealing money, they’re stealing entertainment: songs, videos, games, photos. They steal these things because they enjoy these things, and the moment legitimate digital distribution is easier than piracy, everyone wins. The best example of this mentality is iTunes, Apple’s music digital distribution service whose business strategy was to offer a high-quality file for only $0.99 at a button press. Instead of hunting the internet for a link to download a batch of low-fi songs, consumers at large flocked to iTunes for its ease of use. Apple curtailed piracy merely by offering their content in a way that understood people’s changing expectations rather than trying to dictate them. The best thing to come from SOPA is that it seems the internet blackout made an impact. Besides sites like Wikipedia and craigslist going down for the day, and other sites like Google making their opposition public, 3 million people signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition alone. The fruits were a bevy of legislators changing their tune to SOPA and a handful more voicing their stance: before the blackout, SOPA had 80 supporters and 31 opponents; after, SOPA had only 65 supports and a whopping 101 opponents. Today, the backlash is so loud that both the House and Senate have delayed the bill indefinitely. But while SOPA is, for the moment, set to the wayside, a bill that deals with internet freedoms will undoubtedly return to the center stage soon, and we should pay attention when it does. The internet’s openness and equality define it as the world’s most potentially egalitarian frontier. If we’re going to restructure it, we should pay attention to how we do it––what we’ll be protecting and what we’ll be giving up.


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