Friday, January 27, 2012

My thoughts on SOPA/PIPA

I generally try to steer clear of politics on Facebook, because I am fortunate to have friends from a variety of political persuasions—and consider myself fortunate for the diverse postings I get to see. I have always been an independent rather than a political party partisan (evidenced by my working in the 1980 presidential campaign of Congressman John Anderson, plus having served two terms on the non-partisan school board). In this election year, I think the biggest patriots are those who can see positive aspects in all major candidates (albeit sometimes one has to dig a bit harder to find those positive aspects). I especially like to see regular people take part in their government!

As someone who has taught American Government and Constitutional Law for WVU-P, I was thrilled to see so many of my Facebook friends (some of them former students of mine) post comments and links related to the Congressional bills known as the “Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)” and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).” Because of the work I do in my real job, I have known about these bills—and the overall problem—for a long time.

In my opinion, the bills were reaching too far—especially with the expectations to block entire domains like Wikipedia. I can understand that the Hollywood studios don’t like to have their latest movies uploaded to the Internet where they can be viewed for free. The same goes for the music recording industry. However, I don’t think these industry-driven bills were written with the proper appreciation for the Internet and what it has provided to all of us. Don’t further increase the power of the government to shut down swaths of the web just because of a particular pirate who uploaded a movie (it can already be done with the laws now on the books—see the news about Don’t inconvenience the rest of us by outright censoring—it might be harder to do, but if someone is ripping off your intellectual property, then only go after the violator without impacting the rest of us. [Also, you might want to think about your whole business paradigm, which may have worked in the old days (vertical integration with studios owning the theaters as well as the stars), but may not be realistic for today’s world.]

Sure, they will cry that this is too hard to do, but it is the most just approach. Americans value freedom, and the Internet wants to be free. There is a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, ranging from hacking tools to kiddie porn to bomb-making instructions. But all of that is outweighed by the repository of human knowledge that it truly is—and all of it for (relatively) free! We don’t want to head down the road of Internet censorship that China and many other countries are already on. It is our love of liberty that helps to set us apart, and makes us that “shining city upon a hill, whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” (a favorite quote of mine from President Reagan).

So it was with great pleasure that I watched the SOPA and PIPA bills get pulled down this week, as a result of the massive public response via the Internet. Perhaps only a decade ago, this sort of legislation, backed by fatcats of both parties and greased along by massively funded lobbying efforts, would have snuck through the Congress somewhat under the radar. However, it was the outcry of the citizenry that changed the trajectory of this legislation. I like that!

I just hope that Facebook and the Internet can be used more often to engage the citizenry on legislative topics in the future. Perhaps the impact from the millions of binary 0’s and 1’s carrying our on-line petitions and e-mail messages across the web and into Congressional offices can somehow offset the millions of dollars that are often used on Capitol Hill to grease the skids for legislation intended to benefit certain sectors, rather than doing the greater good.

Since the Internet came along, I have never been bored. There is always something new to learn about, and it is all available to me through my keyboard. What originally started as ARPAnet is probably mankind’s greatest invention to date. Let’s use it responsibly but resist letting governments anywhere overpower it, because the web can be a vital tool for discovering the truth. As the motto of my alma mater says, “Vos Veritas Liberabit” (the truth shall make you free, from John 8:32).

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