Afterthoughts On Dark Day(s)

As I write this, my site is dark, and I have no notion of what Congress has done or will do regarding SOPA/PIPA. It could be, for example, that the pro-censorship forces have built enough “legislative terror” into the bill that large portions can be removed while still yielding a bill that is a drastic curtailment of free speech. If I had to bet, that is exactly what I would expect.

As I am not in general in favor of gratuitous IP piracy, let me me as clear as I can about what I object to. This bill, like so many other acts by the federal government in the Obama administration, sets up a system of punishment without the bother of a trial and conviction. You have one copyrighted YouTube clip on your site of several thousand posts? The copyright holder can claim a violation, and a court can shut down your entire site, including the 99.99 percent that is NOT in violation of anything. As there is no site anywhere of any size that does not have some copyrighted material on it… e.g., they may have put up a quotation assuming fair use, and the copyright holder claims the quote is too long… there is no site invulnerable to a SOPA/PIPA shutdown. And what about YouTube videos? Google cannot possibly police every video clip posted by anyone; there are simply too many, and the process of copyright search is neither easy nor inexpensive.

Free speech is not a luxury and not optional: it is the core liberty essential to the functioning of a democracy. Hollywood bellyaching notwithstanding, free speech is vastly more important than intellectual property rights. And there is nothing new under the sun. As some American senators in days long past found their voices in quoting ancient Greeks and Romans, today, online debates often involve quoting short clips from The West Wing (or, in the case of the right-wing nutjobs, less savory Fox programs). Stifling quotations because of the medium they’re embedded in is suppressing free speech just the same.

If the law goes into effect, I predict a period of perhaps 15 minutes before someone uses the law selectively to shut down one or more sites s/he doesn’t like, making a dubious claim of copyright violation. This is, after all, America, where we wield the law like a cave-dweller’s spiked club. (I’d insert a frame of Fred Flintstone™ here, but that would be a copyright violation.) Given President Obama’s fanatical devotion to the punishment of leakers within and about his administration, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first victims were web sites critical of Obama.

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