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Engrossing: What SOPA says about society

Published: January 26, 2012
Section: Opinions


If you have been on Facebook at any point in the recent past, you probably noticed the hundreds of statuses, posted links and online petitions surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

My knowledge of this piece of legislation was minimal, until the first day of classes, when I found myself sitting in Gerstenzang 123 (the scariest classroom at Brandeis) for the first day of Internet and Society, a computer science class that I only signed up for so that I wouldn’t have to take astronomy.

Thanks to the university’s insistence that I take a natural science class before I graduate, SOPA is a topic to which I’ve given a great deal of thought, in the past few weeks.

While I’m still not sure how this class counts as a natural science elective, I am sure that this class’ discussion of SOPA has helped me to understand SOPA’s importance and to understand that SOPA isn’t just a piece of legislation, it is a turning point at which society will define how we think about and interact with technology.

To understand this, you will have to endure my (somewhat lacking) explanation of why this issue is not just one of legislation, but culture.

Historically, the Internet is set up as something called an End to End network.

In this type of network, the computers at the ends of the network—the ones hosting and accessing it—are distinguished from the computers within the network.

Because applications run on computers at the edge of the network, in this type of system innovators only have to connect computers to the network to let apps run. Because the design of the network is not optimized for any particular application, it is open to innovation, unimaginable to its creators. Because the network owner can’t discriminate against some packets while favoring others, the network can’t discriminate against new innovation

From this framework, the incredible amount of inventiveness and ingenuity that we saw in the early days of Internet development were possible. Because there was no centralized control in the middle of the Internet network, individuals were able to access the network and build anything upon it!

Unfortunately, this new ground for creation and innovation also bred a whole bunch of copyright infringement and piracy. The illegal transferring of media and other copyrighted materials dug deeply into the profits of corporations worldwide, prompting their overwhelming support of legislation to prohibit this type of transferring.

Enter SOPA.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill that was introduced to the House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas) in October 2011. The officially written goal of the bill is “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.”

Those supporting this legislation hope to achieve their stated goals, through the expansion of U.S. law enforcement protocol surrounding the online trafficking of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods, imposing a maximum five-year penalty.

Under stricter legislation, networks will be re-architected in the hopes of stemming the piracy that prompted the re-evaluation of current legislation.

While tighter restrictions can lead to more regulate-able economic gains and less proliferation of prohibitive material, it will also make networks more difficult and more expensive to control.

More importantly, the restriction of network access will curb the innovation that has been so important to the American economy in the recent past and so important to the progress of technology today.

SOPA boils down to a question of America’s “new economy”—technology—in contention with its “old economy”—movie studios, publishing houses and music producers.

A recent New York Times article explained that “for at least four years, Hollywood studios, recording industries and major publishing houses have pressed Congress to act against offshore Web sites that have been giving away U.S. movies, music and books as fast as the artists can make them.”

However, these former powerhouses are no longer a dominating influence on legislation. The article explains that “Google, Facebook and Twitter have political muscle of their own, with in-house lobbying shops and trade associations just like traditional media’s” and “for all the campaign contributions, Washington parties and high-priced lobbyists the old economy could muster, nothing could compare to the tentacles the new economy can reach into Americans’ everyday lives through sites like Wikipedia.”

As the title of the article—“In Fight Over Piracy Bills, New Economy Rises Against Old”—hints, the technology industry seems to be edging out more time-honored and traditional strongholds of the old economy. One by one, legislators are pulling their support from SOPA, and the likelihood of its passing grows less and less likely.

As the two powerhouses continue to clash, it is important to keep a perspective and understand that SOPA is not just an issue of legality, but societal value.