Friday, January 20, 2012

SOPA and PIPA: Dead? Well, maybe...

Wednesday's Internet blackout by Wikipedia, Reddit and many other sites was the last straw in a battle of wills between the entertainment and technology industries. As of now, the technology companies have won: Mashable reports that Texas Representative Lamar Smith, the chief sponsor of the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, has at least temporarily tabled the bill, as has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), the U.S. Senate's version of the bill. Of course, in Hollywood terms, we can't be sure that SOPA and PIPA are dead unless someone has hammered a stake into their hearts, and they've turned to ash. (That doesn't stop the studios from reviving them as SOPA II, Son of PIPA, etc.)

In Thursday's New York Times, MPAA Chairman Christopher Dodd is quoted as saying that he wants to meet with Silicon Valley executives to draft an anti-piracy bill that both industries can agree to. Of course, we don't know if the Senator Dodd who would fly to Northern California would be the conciliatory one interviewed on Thursday, or the one quoted by the MPAA on Tuesday saying "...some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns..." and "It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests." I suspect that it will be the latter, and I'm not sure that Senator Dodd and his employers have learned anything from this debacle.

Update, January 21st, 2012: The Hill reports that last Thursday, Senator Dodd said the following on Fox News: "Those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake." It's even more clear to me that nothing has changed and no lessons have been learned.

In the New York Times article, Dodd admitted that he was responsible for the legislative strategy that introduced both bills into the House and Senate, with the objective of ramming them through before technology companies had any chance to respond. He didn't admit that he proposed, but was almost assuredly responsible for, Representative Smith's decision not to allow any opponents of the bills to testify in front of the House. The MPAA and its allies did everything they could to prevent any opponents of the bill from making their positions known. Even on the last day before the blackout, Senator Dodd was trying to intimidate Internet sites into dropping their blackouts.

Had Senator Dodd and his allies simply opened the process to full discussion from the beginning, there would have been no need for the technology companies and individuals to take the action that they did. It also would have saved the entertainment industry a lot of time and money, as well as its reputation. There's no opposition to stopping piracy from international sites, so long as due process is accorded to all parties and domestic sites aren't under a continuous threat of being shut down due to actions that they didn't instigate or encourage.

I would suggest that Senator Dodd sold the MPAA's board a bill of goods: He most likely told his bosses that he could get legislation through that would allow them to take down any website they wanted, at little or no cost, and with virtually no recourse. "Trust me", he likely said: "I got through the Dodd/Frank Bill". Yes, he did, in a greatly watered-down form, when the House, Senate and White House were all controlled by the Democrats, and when the American public was strongly in favor of increased legislation of the financial industry.  That's a little like being appointed a General for the Allies after the Germans had already been pushed back behind the Rhine. Your tactical skill was probably not what won the War.

It's time for the entertainment and technology industries to negotiate as equal partners in order to craft an anti-piracy bill that helps to stop piracy without killing off legitimate businesses. Personally, I wouldn't trust Senator Dodd to be part of those negotiations, but I'm not going to be making that decision.
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