It’s over. Thank heavens. Finally we can begin to forget those terrible four letter acronyms. Last week the ACTA bill followed the same sorry path to the rubbish bin as its American cousins SOPA and PIPA. It was the ultimate battle between good and evil…and good won…no evil did…well, somebody won? With all the mass hysteria and doomsday predictions regarding the three bills it’s hard to know what they actually stood for. Whilst the public was right to be concerned about the bills and their potential repercussions, greater protection for content creators is still required. Instead of just sweeping the bills to the side, we should be embracing their motive and working globally to clean up the mess we have all created.
Underneath all the media manipulation, consumer propaganda and political lobbying, the three controversial bills were actually drafted with positive intentions. With the US investing billions in digital innovation, SOPA and PIPA were written to provide greater protection to content creators that have been systematically stolen from for years. It also intended to protect local US interests by reducing the threat of global piracy. ACTA had similar aims with a European flavour (and a glass of wine). It wanted a simpler way for rights holders throughout Europe to get sites removed from other countries that infringed copyright. So far, so good right? Most states already have jurisdiction to block domains hosting illegal content from within their own country. Isn’t this just doing the same thing for foreign websites?
Well no, it appears that if you throw enough digital mud, some of it sticks. The bills instead took on a life of their own. All three were termed anti-internet… anti-free speech…and even anti 99 per cent. Protests were frequent and some commentators even predicted the end of the world as we know it. But what caused the media and the public to become so emotive over ‘our internet’? The seeds of this revolution were actually planted many years ago in the United States. In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed and made law under the Clinton Government. The DMCA was ground breaking because it protected websites from the copyright infringement of their users. It meant that a website was not liable for what a user posted. Hollywood was a big supporter of the DMCA (sound familiar?) because it believed it would reduce growing piracy. The DMCA did some of this. It also afforded a whole lot of freedom to new content sharing sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The proposed SOPA bill wanted to extend this protection to foreign sites. It stipulated that the Attorney General would have the power to request Internet Service Providers block access to offshore websites that were trafficking pirated content (think Mega Upload). Opponents argued that copyright holders would be free to shoot off requests at a whim, blocking foreign websites and allowing little opportunity for recourse. This point struck fear with Joe Public as it was perceived people would abuse this power and use it in an anti-competitive way. But who stood to lose the most from SOPA, PIPA and ACTA? Not Joe Public. Google did. Facebook did. Twitter did. Under SOPA, these US websites would have lost significant revenue from sites that would be blocked from hosting illegal content. They were also worried that if SOPA was made law in the US, that Europe and then Asia would then do the same thing against US sites. This would create a global arms race for countries to block each other’s sites for their own self-interests.
On January 18, the much publicised SOPA Blackout transpired. By the end of the day, over 115,000 websites had either shut down or altered their homepage in protest of the proposed legislation. It was as powerful as it was swift. The Internet had shown its full force. Google, one of the more vocal opponents, also offered the most interesting angle to the event due to their long running Viacom case. Viacom sued Google, the parent company of YouTube, for copyright violation. During the case a series of emails were presented showing Google executives debating the ethics of the video sharing site. "I can't believe you’re recommending buying YouTube," wrote Google Video business product manager Ethan Anderson to Patrick Walker, a senior Google executive, “Besides the ridiculous valuation they think they're entitled to, they're 80% illegal pirated content.” In the midst of being sued by Viacom for publishing pirated content, Google was protesting against a bill that was aiming to reduce…guess what…pirated content.
This battle over the bills is by far the most brutal and public battle yet in ‘The Bold War’. The Bold War describes the information, innovation and technology battles being fought for consumer wallets globally. It is currently being played out in front of our very eyes by these upstart global Technology behemoths. For me, if there is something to fear in all of this, it is the growing influence of these Internet giants. They will stop at nothing to protect their bulging profits and egos. During the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA debate they have consistently proven how easily they can manipulate the public’s opinion for their own gains. A fundamental shift has now happened. The power to influence the public psyche no longer just sits with the traditional Media magnates. Mark Zuckerberg is the modern Rupert Murdoch. Sergey Brin is the new Ted Turner. The power these handful of individuals yield over governments and politicians far exceeds what any TV or Newspaper was able to achieve in the past.
Whilst some will argue that the Internet giant’s decision to oppose the bills was in the public’s best interest, who is to say these Digital giants will always use this power for good? Shouldn’t we fear anything or anyone that has absolute power? My fear is that the people who control the platform will ultimately control the people. They will become the master of puppets. I can imagine a scenario in twenty years’ time where we all find out the US government was facilitating the use of Social media during the Arab Spring. Who is to say they weren't controlling the protestors. We have all been told the sugar-coated story of how Facebook wants an open and transparent world. Unfortunately, they want an open and transparent world that they control.
This won’t be the first or the last controversial technology or internet related bill. The governments of the world are always going to struggle to keep pace with the pace of the industry. Changing laws every decade is not fast enough for the internet age. When the DMCA was created 13 years ago there was no Facebook, Twitter or Google. Consumers have now become addicted to ‘sharing without repercussions’ and no one wants it to change. Let me put this into an offline example. It is like me setting up a retail store on the local high street. In that store I sell counterfeit Nike apparel I imported from Taiwan. What would you expect to happen? Nike would sue me and the store would be shut. If I did the equivalent online, all of a sudden I expect immunity? If laws had been in place earlier, and governments had worked closer with the industry, we wouldn’t be in such a bad predicament.
Copyright infringement and piracy are major issues that still need to be resolved. The motives of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA should not be confined to the rubbish bin. People who really care about this need to be vocal about revisions, amendments and then the real issues can be brought to the surface. If the bills are too far off the mark the industry should come together to work on a new set of bills. At minimum revisions should be made to existing laws. Whilst the bills in their original format were clearly not the answer, it has opened the debate and that can only be a good thing. If there was anything to gain from this process, it should be that the public is now more aware of who was supposed to win, and who was going to lose from the bills. The problem is, everyone you ask, will have a different view, IMHO….