So I’ve been following the SOPA/PIPA controversy with some interest/concern/freakout and have gone so far as to move most of my domains off of GoDaddy (though, from what I’m told, I should’ve done that a long time ago). Frankly, there is another law that disturbs me far more at the moment, but (a) these bills are not yet law and (b) there appears to be some recourse to prevent that from happening.
DavidDylanThomas.com is still on GoDaddy, but that’s because I foolishly picked the “private registration” option back in 2005 when I registered it and had no idea what a pain in the ass that would make it to move domains later (has to do with access to a particular code authorizing the move). So that’s one thing this has taught me.
Another is that we can’t take internet freedom for granted. Aside from threats to net neutrality on one end we’ve now got poorly thought out measures to curb piracy that might cripple legitimate speech while doing nothing to curb piracy. (Dear SOPA, the web has already figured out how to beat you.) I would hate to think that Kiran is going to grow up in a world where the internet is a one-way broadcasting tool. (If a site becomes liable for what users post; goodbye comments sections, goodbye user-generated content, goodbye online discourse. It all becomes too risky.)
And at the end of the day this comes down to a principle that I’m seeing play out in both net neutrality and piracy controversies and that’s the principle of what you have the right to do versus what’s actually a good idea.
Companies who build the pipe have a right to dictate how that pipe gets used. That doesn’t make it a good idea to give privileged access to the rich. In the short term, there’s some financial gain to be had. In the long term, you basically break the internet.
Companies who own content have a right to charge as much as they like for it and to go after people who steal it. That doesn’t make it a good idea to charge as much as possible nor to create laws that provide crazy access to the government to curb free speech or turn people into felons for singing “Happy Birthday” online. In the short term, there’s some financial gain to be had. In the long term, you basically break the internet.
The economies of the internet allow, and even encourage, more altruistic behavior when it comes to concepts of ownership. See the economic model that keeps Craigslist alive. They don’t charge as much as they can. They charge as little as they can. This keeps them in business. If they charge one penny more, all someone else has to do is come along and charge one penny less. This works because the economies of the internet allow for the cheap distribution of information. (See What Would Google Do? for more on this.)
Collaborative consumption is another constructive paradigm for ownership that the web enables. ZipCar, Chegg, and even Netflix all derive value from not charging one person as much as possible for one item, but rather spreading costs and benefits as evenly as possible. Could such sharing-inspired models work for (now) intangible items like content?
The problem, of course, is that the cheap economies of the internet are built upon the not-so-cheap economies of things like building lots and lots of pipe and creating lots and lots of entertainment. Now in the case of the former, the initial build is a one-time (massive) expense followed by maintenance, and ISPs tend to charge sizable fees for access at which many users do not balk. Whether or not this is enough to make up for the cost of building out that pipe, I really don’t know (and if anyone does know, please tell). In the case of the latter, some, but certainly not all, of the entertainment is getting cheaper to produce, and in the case of the considerable amount that is anything but cheap to produce, there’s a serious problem because the low or free rates of access to that entertainment online don’t currently support the model. And we don’t yet know what will. So I can understand the urgency one might feel to protect that content.
But SOPA and PIPA, as most of us realize at this point, won’t protect that content.
Now, if you were to actually have some people who understand the internet write a law and a protocol for protecting copyright, you might get somewhere. Problem is, most content producers who are pushing for SOPA/PIPA don’t trust people who understand the internet. They think they’re “in on it.” So, here’s my plan. We get a bunch of folks who know what’s up to write a law that actually makes sense, then get someone the content owners trust (Richard Branson????) to actually present it as if it were their idea. We even get some prominent technologists to protest the bill to make it look like the Internet People are against it. This will make content owners like it even more. Then we just let Congress take its course.
Ultimately, though, the switch from content being physical to being information is going to force us to rethink the economic models behind distribution of that content and, even more fundamentally, the concept of ownership of content. Because now ownership of content is like ownership of information, difficult to define and even more difficult to control. We’re going to need to come up with a model that compensates both the builders of the pipe and the builders of the content in a way that respects the fact that content ain’t what it used to be. Physical.