Archive for SOPA

Lobbying

Posted in Politics, tech with tags , on January 24, 2012 by themaroon

SOPA is dead, and the tech industry is still not quite elated. They shouldn’t be either, because the root cause hasn’t been addressed. We can say with a high degree of certainty that Congress will be more careful introducing bills that tamper with the internet, but they have many ways of avoiding debate.  They’ll shove something just like it in the back of some anti-terror bill at the last minute and the President will have to sign it.

This is one of the few bad things about bi-partisanship. When something like the need to stop piracy is widely accepted by both parties (SOPA had broad support on both sides of the aisle) and there is campaign funding at stake, they can turn a lobbyist’s email into a law faster than you can blink.

What we in the tech industry really need to fix is lobbying, and to do that we must first fix our worldview. We subscribe to the romantic notion of a meritocratic market.  We shouldn’t. It’s an ideal, but we don’t live in a world of ideals. We live in a world in which politicians make the rules of the game.

Paul Graham, in Y Combinator’s latest request for startup, says of Hollywood:

SOPA brought it to our attention that Hollywood is dying. They must be dying if they’re resorting to such tactics. If movies and TV were growing rapidly, that growth would take up all their attention. When a striker is fouled in the penalty area, he doesn’t stop as long as he still has control of the ball; it’s only when he’s beaten that he turns to appeal to the ref.

This way of looking at it is why SOPA existed in the first place. To mature industries like Hollywood lobbying isn’t an area of focus, it’s a basic business function. This is equivalent to saying “Google must be dying because they have accountants. If they were good at making money they wouldn’t stop to count it.”

Mature industries have lobbyists just like they do janitors, it’s simply something they view as a cost of doing business. I believe the software companies will get there soon.

But fixing the problem (which I’m not optimistic about) is another thing entirely, and no one industry can do this. The root cause is our system of campaign financing. Congressmen accept money from industries because they believe (probably falsely) that money helps keep them in office.

I’ll avoid getting political here because I could rant about campaign finance reform for pages, but the upshot for the tech industry is they need to either fix the game, by lobbying to end lobbying, or learn to play it better by lobbying to uphold their rights. Either way it shouldn’t (and I think in the very near future won’t) be viewed as anything other than a basic business function.

How Not to Argue Against SOPA

Posted in Politics, Startup, tech, The Internets with tags , on January 13, 2012 by themaroon

I’m still utterly horrified by the SOPA hysteria I mentioned earlier, especially since it’s coming from people who know better. Today’s post on GigaOm about Tim O’Reilly is a good case in point. (And before I go any further, let me state this clearly so it can’t be misconstrued, I’m not arguing in favor of SOPA and PIPA. I think they’re idiotic. I’m arguing in favor of combatting them with rationality rather than hysteria and bad logic.)

O’Reilly makes two points, both of which are simply wrong. The first is…

“Piracy is not a significant problem… Once the market matures, the pirates go away. They always do. Legitimate markets work better than pirate markets.”

This is a common fallacy I see over and over. “The movie companies fought VHS,” you’ll hear, “and it ended up being an enormous source of wealth for them.” True. But that doesn’t mean digital content distribution will.

There’s a standard disclaimer in every mutual fund prospectus that says “past performance is not indicative of future results”. It’s entirely possible (and in fact I believe it to be true) that digital distribution is such a fundamental shift in the nature of piracy that you can’t assume it will simply all pan out OK the way it always has in the past.

In the VHS days to pirate a movie I had to have someone who had two VCRs rent a movie, buy a blank VHS tape, and spend 2 hours copying it for me. The barrier to getting that done is not insubstantial when you consider that every single instance of piracy requires that. It’s not scalable.

Via digital distribution I just have to have someone not delete the torrent. It’s effortlessly scalable to millions of people. It’s not significantly less work to pirate it for anyone involved than it is to purchase it legally, and it is significantly less cost.

Sure, if you’re making books that teach people programming languages, they might be willing to pay. I think its fair to say that the music industry’s results have shown that it just doesn’t work the same way for music.

The second is the notion that SOPA/PIPA will somehow be bad for US-based startups. That would seem to be the case if you didn’t actually read them. The laws clearly apply only to foreign companies. If anything, it will be an unfair advantage for startups here. Rhapsody can perhaps simply get Spotify shut down for infringement (remember, there’s no burden of proof).

O’Reilly says that “If SOPA goes through, it could very well force certain innovative companies to go offshore.” I think the exact opposite is true. Foreign companies will come here to be protected by the DMCA.

And the worst argument of all (and O’Reilly didn’t pull this card) is the slippery slope. This is one of the most insidious logical fallacies around, because at least ad hominems don’t even attempt to masquerade as rational thought. This is the same as saying “if we allow gay people to marry pretty soon it’ll be legal to marry your dog”. It’s been used since time immemorial to argue against every single advance in civil liberties.

A government can’t simply not pass a law just because future laws might overreach. We didn’t need to slide down any slopes to get the PATRIOT Act, and whether or not SOPA passes will have no bearing whatsoever on censorship of legitimate free speech in the future.

So there you have it. If you want to argue against SOPA, there are plenty of good reasons. For one, it won’t stop digital piracy at all. I think it will severely curtail illegal sales of counterfeit goods and prescription medicines, but getting illegal music will just involve editing your hosts file or, more likely, getting a program that does it for you. 

Argue that the lack of any burden of proof makes it absurd in any scenario. Argue that it’s a violation of trade treaties, since it’s clearly showing preferential treatment to U.S.-based businesses. Argue that it was written word-for-word by lobbyists and endorsed by the politicians they pay.

There are so many reasons to dislike these acts that we don’t need to make up more.

SOPA On a Ropa

Posted in Politics with tags on December 23, 2011 by themaroon

I’ve been reading a lot about SOPA lately, and not much of it has been reasonable on either side of the debate. On one hand you have the media companies who want the ability to take down pretty much any site they feel is infringing their IP that they can’t already sue (ie. ones outside of the United States). That’s not necessarily a goal I’m opposed to, but the lack of any sort of checks on their power as SOPA currently stands is  clearly ludicrous. Some lobbyists earned their paychecks on that one.

On the other hand, you have everyone who runs a website, who is claiming this is the end of the internet as we know it, while simultaneously claiming that it’s toothless because you’ll be able to get around it by simply adding one line to your hosts file. I’m not sure how anything could possibly be the death of the internet and so easily circumvented at the same time, but that’s certainly the argument.

Neither is true tough. Sure, technology will exist to route around some DNS blocking, but it might at least add enough of a barrier to entry to piracy to drive more people to legal services. The fact that most people don’t know how to use bittorrent is the only reason iTunes exists. (If you say selection and/or ease of use I’ll punch you, then show you what.cd.) I feel like I could sooner explain to someone how to pirate a CD right now than to route around a DNS blacklist. SOPA won’t end piracy, certainly, but it will reduce it a bit and increase media industry revenues.

And unless I’m mistaken, SOPA only applies to foreign websites. Reddit these days is full of nothing but self-posts about how Reddit will no longer exist if SOPA passes, and links to animated gifs on imgur.com, both of which are located in the US.

Even if SOPA passes as is, Reddit will be fine. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. Besides it would almost have to get struck down by the courts.

Don’t get me wrong, SOPA is a bad thing. In some ways it’s mind-bogglingly ludicrous. A good example is that there’s no requirement of proof, either that the targeted site is actually doing anything illegal, or that the complainant actually owns the IP that’s supposedly being infringed.

But it isn’t worth the ire it’s drawn. I think what we’re seeing is the same anti-government extremists that inhabit social media sites latching onto a hot button issue to further their cause. SOPA sucks and needs to die, but that isn’t where the outrage is coming from. It’s disproportionate and slanted in the usual direction.

This isn’t just anti-lobbyist or anti-media sentiment fueling the fire, it’s good old fashioned anarchy. And we all need to just take a breath and go about getting rid of this atrocity calmly and rationally and without the anti-capitalist ideology. If we can all accept that media companies have a right to exist and charge for and protect the products that they invest billions into making, then perhaps we can work with them to find a framework in which they can still profit in the digital era that doesn’t involve granting them authoritarian powers.

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