A bill is currently being debated in the United States House of Representatives that seeks to implement measures that will enable the US Government to control Americans’ access to “foreign” Web sites. The bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has been criticised by big-name Internet business including the likes of Google, Twitter, and PayPal among others as an initiative that could lead to an “online Armageddon”.
SOPA also known as H.R. 3261, is a bill that was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011, by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors. The bill expands the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Now before the House Judiciary Committee, it builds on the similar PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding Senate bill, the Protect IP Act.
The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who requests the court orders, the actions could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators such as PayPal from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a felony. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.
Leaders of some of the world’s biggest Internet enterprises issued An Open Letter to Washington denouncing the bill as a slippery slope to Internet censorship. These Net moguls are up against America’s powerful mainstream and entertainment industry who have largely rallied behind the bill, claiming that it will protect the industry against “rampant piracy” that leads to loss of jobs and theft of intellectual property.
The clout wielded by Silicon Valley titans like Sergey Brin of Google and Jerry Yang of Yahoo! cannot be denied, as they preside over content distribution networks that command the eyes of hundreds of millions of Netizens. However, Mainstream Media has a long history of funding politicians’ campaigns (among other things) and is vastly more experienced and organised in the dark arts of lobbying Congress.
Herein lies the trouble with the power of entrenched tradition. Mainstream media is hundreds of years old and relies on closed systems and propriety channels to reach its audience and make its money. The Net, on the other hand, is an open system and an inclusive community. Making money on the back of the latter — in what is essentially a free-for-all environment — is counter-intuitive. The founders of Google, for example, had to invent new business models to capitalise upon the vast audiences attracted to the services that they made available to them for free.
Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, the very counter-intuitive nature of the Net is what makes defending the preservation of its essence as an inclusive platform a lot more difficult. Mainstream media is of a “We own this audience and the crap we feed them” mindset. It makes perfect sense from a legal perspective. Hollywood studios, for example, invest in producing the content consumed by their audience. So they are entitled to making money off that content.
The new Net titans, on the other hand, channel that content to their audience. The value of their role is in how they develop self-correcting systems — and broader social ecosystems — that identify what is relevant to them. The value of their products and services lies in that relevance. In the case of search engines such as Google, the relevance of the results they deliver is built upon the independence of their search algorithms and, therefore, the audience trust they earn from this independence. Social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, for their part, provide their users the ability to configure how they want to experience the platforms they provide by selecting who their “friends” are and who to “follow” or “subscribe” to.
The relevance of what their users experience and how this relevance is used (in an ethical way for the most part for the more trustworthy among them) to optimise the marketing efforts of their clients is all made possible by the openness and inclusiveness of their platforms. Unfortunately it is quite a mouthful to explain all this to people whose livelihoods depend on bastions of closed and exclusive systems. But I have faith in the sorts of minds that built Google and Facebook. Brains that excel in counterintuitive thinking find ways to prevail in a world dominated by the sort of lazy thinking that routinely finds comfort in the embrace of ancient dogma.
[NB: Some parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article Stop Online Piracy Act subject to the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License observed by Get Real Post.]
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