Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sopa in Black and White

The evil SOPA is beaten! Let the free movies continue!

Now that SOPA looks like it's been postponed for the time being, it struck me that amidst the near-universal pious declarations of outrage there was something missing from the debate. The drowning in free movies and TV shows bit. Try as I might, I just couldn't summon up the response to this draconian, now-stillborn piece of legislation that I knew I was supposed to feel as a right-thinking web citizen.

My first thought had been: well, I'm far away from the coalface on this one, so who cares what I think? But in reality, everyone who uses sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Google (and in my own profession, Stack Overflow) - in other words everyone and his dog - is in the mine and at the coalface. In the same way as there is no centre of the universe (try the cool interactive star chart on that page), there is no centre of the internet, so maybe we're all at the coalface.

Sure, the SOPA bill sounds like it would have been scandalously un-nuanced in its approach to penalizing sites that in any way link to piracy sites or unwittingly host dodgy content. Hence the righteous indignation. But equally un-nuanced has been much of the anti-SOPA commentary in response. It seems to me that David Pogue has something with the whole free movies shtick.
"But there’s another group of people with a different agenda: They don’t even agree with the bills’ purpose. They don’t want their free movies taken away. A good number of them believe that free music and movies are their natural-born rights. They don’t want the big evil government taking away their free fun."
For is it not a fact that virtually everyone you know has simply stopped even thinking about it in any other way but that movies and TV shows are theirs for the taking, commodities to be traded in a frictionless non-market like words, mere tokens used to curry favour with our fellow workers and friends or gain acceptance with peers. I include myself in that grouping, by the way. I'm not holding anyone to a different account than the one to which I hold myself.

Flickr photo
Flickrlarry david, by jaydedman. Give Larry his $3, please.

Recently I asked around my circle of friends to see if anyone knew an iTunes alternative on Android where I could buy episodes of 'Boardwalk Empire' and 'Curb your Enthusiasm'. I had unsuccessfully tried converting shows I'd bought on iTunes to play on my Xoom. What I noticed was that everyone I spoke to immediately referred me to some or other free file-sharing service without answering my question which had been about buying shows. I could hardly blame them though. Up to that point, I had shown no disinclination to accept, and indeed pass on on occasion, virtual entertainment of... dubious provenance. But now I don't care if Larry David is richer than Croesus or that somewhere there's a f1leZ-sharing site at which I could get this stuff for free: he makes me laugh like a monkey for 30 minutes. $3 is nothing. Really, what would I rather spend my money on?

If people want to oppose legislation like this on technical grounds as many did, then fair enough. If a bunch of lobbyists and politicans who have not demonstrated an understanding of how the internet works and how their changes would imperil that then they didn't do their homework and the smackdown was justified. It's also been pointed out by many that (apparently) the law simply wouldn't make that much difference to the pirates who can easily route around the SOPA restrictions.

But my hunch is that behind the piety a lot of us are objecting to SOPA on spurious if not actually selfish grounds. That hunch is based on what I observe to be something that's quite important to all of us. Free entertainment. We often complain that the movie industry makes way too much money, overcharging for DVDs, or that they would buy content "if they made it easier", etc. Right. In most of the complaints against SOPA though that I've seen, little admission is made to our habituation to piracy. Because that's uncool on the internet, and anyway we all know who the real bad guys are: profitable corporations. In Jeff Atwood's post on all this, he says at one stage "These bills were pushed through by highly paid lobbyists for the entertainment industry." This is classic well-poisoning: what matters is whether someone is doing right or wrong, not how much they're being paid to do it.

In the end, it's the Greek taxpayers problem: as long as the culture fosters an atmosphere of tolerance, and even respect, for people to be seen to be sticking it to the Man (in this case Hollywood), then people have less incentive to do the right thing. Computer users' culture, as far as I've experienced it, is one where we take what we can get for free, and in fact kudos to the go-to guy with the free stuff who knows how to get it. But much like with the Syntagma Square pavement-slab throwers, we should be skeptical of protests presented in such black-and-white terms.


  1. Nice blog! Some great points there! :-)

  2. This just in:

  3. The comment I left on that blog is: "The sense of entitlement here is wonderful: everything I ever want should be available to me all the time, at my convenience: if it isn't I'm going to curse and blame everyone else. And everyone is going to agree with me because it's so self-evidently correct! The very definition of spoiled." But I probably don't get it.

  4. 'In the end, it's the Greek taxpayers problem: as long as the culture fosters an atmosphere of tolerance, and even respect, for people to be seen to be sticking it to the Man...'. Yes. However, if you are making reference to the current situation in Greece, we cannot fail to ignore the complicity of the banks and corrupt politicians there too, not just the tax payers – the issues as you say, are not so black and white.