Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 10 days, you are no doubt keenly aware of the IP legislation SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) an PIPA (Protect IP Act) and the recent hullaballoo surrounding the bills final moments before it slipped into a vegetative coma as we hit the weekend. This was a case of internet mass-hysteria on a “Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show ‘wardrobe malfunction’ fallout” scale. For as much entertainment as we find (and, according to Hollywood big-wigs MPAA, steal) online, it is rare that the web itself is the star. Here’s what happened.
SOPA and PIPA were both introduced as a means of dealing with the unique new copyright challenges our always advancing technology has created, namely online piracy. Piracy in the Entertainment Industry is nothing new. Mix tapes were technically piracy, since you didn’t own the songs assembled for your crush, and those super-effective FBI Warnings at the start of DVDs was the way Washington dealt with old-media piracy. Today, we have new media and the web, which has been essentially free and open for us here in the US. The problem from the perspective of content creators and owners (who are often not the same entity) is that the web makes stealing said content less than challenging and while the sites that cater to piracy break the bank in ad dollars, the content owners make nothing.
PIPA and SOPA both theoretically seek to cut off the revenue ad money of pirate-centric sites, rather than attacking individuals, which proved a poor PR tactic when the RIAA tried it back in Napster’s day. Of course, in drafting the legislation, our officials in the house and senate wisely elected to make the language super-broad and one sided, which could have far reaching censorship implications.
The soap opera in question began way back in May when PIPA was first introduced in the Senate. Unfortunately, this was just after the Royal wedding, so if we did hear PIPA mentioned on the nightly news, we tuned out, assuming the story was further coverage on the ridiculous hats worn to the shindig by Prince William’s new sister-in-law. Then, by the time SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives late last October, only swash-buckling Pirate-Bayers took note, as most Americans were wary of any technology news involving Washington after Congressman Weiner’s texting shenanigans a few months prior.
In mid-November, things started to heat up when tech companies including eBay, Facebook, AOL and Zynga wrote a strongly-worded letter to key US Reps and Senators against the bills. The Washington Post even reported that Yahoo and other Web Giants had withdrawn their membership in the US Chamber of Commerce’s due to the organizations ardent support of the bills. Of course, our razor-sharp government ignored the trivial fact that the one of the most important group affected and involved had a mastodon-sized bone to pick over the legislation. We didn’t notice either, since this played out behind the debt-ceiling crisis, and we were busy brushing up on our Mandarin, in case China decided those outstanding loans meant they could repossess us before Christmas.
Fast-Forward now to last week. Suddenly SOPIPA (their celebrity couple name) were everywhere, like the Kardashians or Snooki. Early last week many of the very content creators, like publisher Tim O’Reily, Peter Gabriel, NIN and OK Go, among others, whose threatened copyright is, after all, exactly what SOPIPA were supposedly saving, joined the opposition in a very public way.
Wednesday, January 18th is when it totally hit the fan in the form of the Great Internet Blackout Protests of 2012. In 50 years, I see us telling our grandchildren about this one, while they ask their parents “Mommy, what’s a Wikipedia?” Major sites from all over the web went on strike via blackouts, simulated censorship and of course, pop-up ads. Facebook ran amok with hyperbolicious status updates like the following completely real* examples, “SOPA poisons school lunches” or “PIPA ate my baby!” Then, in irony-defining historical moments, the MPAA accused the protesting site heavyweights of a gross abuse of power while media mogul Rupert Murdoch hilariously took to Twitter to decree Google the “piracy-leader” and President Obama supportive of thievery. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
On January 19th, US Representatives and Senators, alertly sensing from the flood of outraged calls inundating their offices that their voting constituents were unequivocally opposed to not having Wikipedia providing the good-enough answer for 24 hours, began to back-pedal their support and co-sponsorship of the bills faster than Siri can locate a Starbucks for you. It got better as all four candidates at the GOP debates suddenly aligned themselves with hacktivists and the tech-savvy Net Generation, as they each condemned SOPIPA. Later that day, the bills original authors announced they had heard the concerned and irate voice of the people, and both were shelved indefinitely.
Speaking of hacktivists, they’re our epilogue. Anonymous, the infamous hacktivist collective, weighed in on Friday by shutting down the sites of the DOJ (who would have jurisdiction had SOPIPA prevailed), MPAA and RIAA (major backers of SOPIPA), Universal Music Group and the FBI. This was following a US Federal raid on and shutdown of foreign file-sharing site MegaUpload, which many argue demonstrates the utter lack of a need for SOPIPA in the first place. Oh, and by the way, in other copyright and IP tech news, the Supreme Court flexed some oligarchical muscle by ruling last week that Congress could in fact re-copyright Public Domain works. But that’s another story for another day. So the soap opera remains ‘to be continued’…
*by which I mean, “totally made-up”
Image via Ars Technica