The internet is in uproar about the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’, a piece of legislation which may become law in the USA in the coming weeks. The blogosphere is full of terrifying descriptions of ‘what will happen if SOPA passes’, but many of these are exaggerations which miss the point.
No-one is going to shut down Facebook. People will not be arrested en masse and imprisoned for uploading videos of their cats set to a copyrighted soundtrack. Stop exaggerating.
‘But SOPA dictates it’, the exaggerators argue, ‘so it will happen’. Well, if all laws were enforced perfectly, they’d be right. But the thing is, if SOPA is passed, it will be enforced very very imperfectly. Every individual and every website infringes copyright on a daily basis, there’s simply no way that SOPA could be properly enforced. And, ironically, that’s what makes it so dangerous.
If the exaggerators were right, I think we’d be better off. If most of the internet were shut down, and millions of people arrested, the public outcry would get the law repealed pretty much immediately. The problem is not that everyone will be arrested, the problem is that anyone could be arrested. There’s no judicial oversight needed to enforce an existing law, so if you have a law that everyone breaks but is barely enforced, you have a mechanism to arrest anyone. As Cardinal De Richelieu might say, “Give me six lines from the internet history of the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough in them to arrest him”.
I’m very reluctant to quote Ayn Rand, but this excerpt is certainly something to think about:
“Did you really think we want those laws observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them to be broken. …There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game…”
I’m not paranoid enough to think that this is the intended purpose of SOPA, but it doesn’t have to be. ‘An excuse to arrest anyone’ may not be what those in power are pushing for with this bill, but it’s what they’ll get. And if they get it, sooner or later they’ll use it, regardless of its stated intentions, just as anti-terror laws are now routinely used for unrelated purposes.
Freedom is a ratchet. It’s easy to lose and very hard to get back again.
The People need to be warned, but when people hear a lot of the horror stories out there about ‘what will happen if SOPA is passed’, they think “Well, no-one is going to shut down Facebook and Google” (true), and then they think “…so this person must be a nutcase and there’s nothing to worry about” (WRONG). When you exaggerate, you lose your audience. So stop warning people what will happen if SOPA is strictly enforced, and start warning them about what will happen if it’s barely enforced. SOPA will not shut down the web. No, it’s much worse than that. I’ve told you a million times, stop exaggerating.
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