Wednesday, January 18, 2012

This Site Is Not Going Dark Today

I haven’t been writing much lately as I have much better things to do. However I felt obligated to post something today, because today is National Whine about Congress Not Understanding the Internet whilst Demonstrating that You Know Less than Nothing About the Law and/or Rights Day.

If today is your first day on the internet, you should probably come back another time. All the cool sites, like Wikipedia, XKCD, and Google, are engaging in forms of protest against two pending bills: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and Protect IP (PIPA) in the Senate. Everyone says these bills are bad (BAAAAAD), which to me was the first reason to suspect they might actually be good. Well, “good” is unlikely given today’s political and legal culture, so perhaps “pretty ok” or “not that bad” is more likely.

So I proceeded to read 50,000 articles professing to brutally expose the evil that is SOPA/PIPA. Lo and behold, the popular position on the issue turns out not to be worth the virtual paper it’s not actually printed on. Here are the main arguments of the anti-SOPA/PIPA crowd (including the you-know-who-ists’) and why they’re stupid:

1. SOPA/PIPA will fundamentally alter the structure and use of the internet.

Something about IP addresses and DNS and security and things. It’s not really important, but if you care to, you can read about it here.

Why this argument is stupid

Non-sequitur. The government’s job is not to protect existing systems, it’s to protect rights. The internet is home to mass theft. Its fundamental structure probably should change.

A better argument

The mechanism the bills propose for preventing theft online is sub-optimal. It won’t stop what it’s trying to stop, and it will interfere with legitimate activities and/or security. A new bill should be written with a better mechanism.

2. SOPA/PIPA make website owners responsible for content posted by their users.

YouTube would be shut down! Reddit would die! How can Facebook possibly police their users to prevent the illegal posting of copyrighted materials? It just isn’t fair. No one else is forced to do this!

Why this argument is stupid

Actually, everyone else is already forced to do this. No property owner is free to turn a blind eye to illegal activities taking place on his property. If a vendor at a flea market has stolen goods, the market is rightfully shut down until the stolen property is recovered. When valuable personal property like jewelry is stolen, police and insurers alert pawn shops, who are required by law to turn over any suspicious items. The owners of the flea market and pawn shops have not committed any crime, but they still have obligations under the law. Further they can be liable for the thief’s actions, meaning the owner of the stolen property may have rights to recover against them as well as the actual thief in a lawsuit if they contributed to the harm, say through lax security standards.

SOPA essentially proposes to extend this standard to the Web. PIPA actually requires “good faith belief” that a site’s primary purpose is the dissemination of pirated materials in order to take action, so the fears for Facebook under that bill are totally unwarranted. The strongest element to this argument comes from the potential for SOPA to be applied very broadly, in a nightmare scenario where sites like this one are taken down because one commenter posted one link to a site containing one piece of pirated material. However this does not appear to be the actual mechanism proposed by the law nor is such application consistent with legal precedent. Without knowing the precise mechanisms of application and enforcement, it's basically impossible to evaluate the reasonableness of SOPA or PIPA.

A better argument

The enforcement mechanism is vague/untenable. Unfortunately no one seems to have bothered to figure out what the enforcement mechanism is (and some of that will be up to the courts later on), and I’m certainly not going to read the bills (nor would I likely understand them.) Which is actually an even better argument: that no one reads these things nor can they be understood by the people to whom the laws apply. Of course that’s an argument against just about every law we have; doesn’t really make sense to get all worked up about that now, does it? Save it for the health insurance debate.


Just writing “censorship” in all caps counts as an argument, right? Yeah, totally.

The “argument” behind this go-to non-argument is basically that giving the government the authority to black out stolen content opens the door for blacking out any content the Man doesn’t want us to see.

Why this argument is stupid

Gosh, if we give the government the authority to put criminals in jail, that opens the door for them to put ANYONE in jail! JAILORSHIP!

Shut up. Seriously, please, just shut up. This has nothing to do with free speech. You have rights to your own property and your own speech, but you have no rights to the property and speech of others. Blacking out stolen content on the internet is no different than taking back stolen goods. It’s no different than shutting down printing presses that are printing copyrighted materials without the owners’ consent, or bookstores that (even unknowingly) sell them. It is irrespective of the content of the material being blacked out. It is not censorship.

A better argument

Pandas. Ecumenicalism. Antidisestablishmentarianism. Literally any combination of words, sounds, or stick figures makes a better argument than this.

4. Individuals have the power to trigger action by accusing sites of piracy.

Under SOPA/PIPA, a content-owner can trigger various crippling actions against the site that contains the stolen content. Primarily they can stop that site’s ability to process payments by notifying the company that handles the payments. They don’t need to notify the offending site. With a court order, they can do some other stuff, like stop advertisers from advertising on the offending site. These actions could destroy a Web business, particularly a start-up, and is ripe for abuse.

Why this argument is stupid

All such systems are ripe for abuse, and the answer is always the same: sue. If someone causes you harm through abuse of “the system,” you system their ass right back. This is what the civil court system is for: keeping such abuse in check and providing compensation when abuse does occur.

A better argument

Just stop talking. Seriously, it’s painful to watch you flounder like this. Just…just stop. Please.

Ergo, Strategic Misanthropy is going to be live and well on this day. I will gladly change my tune if someone can prove to me that there really is something deeply objectionable going on here, but to date I have not seen any compelling evidence. I’m not saying I hope these bills pass, but I do hope those in rabid opposition check their premises. By the way, picking up a legal dictionary once in a while would help with that. Just saying.

Chip chip cheerio,

S. Misanthrope


  1. The legal wording of the bill is very vague and the protocol for enforcement without proof of fault goes against the entire idea of innocent before proven guilty...Not to bring NDAA into this discussion, but I don't want myself or my website detained without verifiable proof of illegal activity. Not to mention the way this bill implicates any site that may facilitate or enable other sites to engage in piracy, talk about a huge backdoor for all kinds of abuse...

  2. Your mom has a huge backdoor for all kinds of abuse.