A threat to the Internet, and naming the right problem


by John Abbe

President of the Co-Intelligence Institute

The Internet is in an uproar over proposed U.S. House bill Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and it’s corresponding bill in the Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Among other consequences, these bills would lead to blocking websites (the way China does), and stopping ads & Visa/Mastercard payments to them, simply by alleging – not proving – that they are engaging in, enabling or facilitating copying content illegally. This and other features of the bills are so broad that many in the technology world have been organizing against the bills, concerned that they are an extreme overreaction which would greatly inhibit free speech and fair competition. Protest before Congress’ annual winter break (including a mass defection from domain name registrar GoDaddy for their support of the bills) have slowed things down enough for many more people to get involved. As Congress reconvenes, a number of large websites plan to shut down for half the day on January 18, to raise awareness on the issue. Wikipedia may join in, which would obviously gain a lot of people’s attention, and Anonymous has already signed on: 


One website to recently join the chorus against the bills is craigslist, no doubt spooked by the thought that competitor website monster.com, which has publicly considered craisglist to be a “rogue site”, could have craigslist taken down if the bills were passed. They’ve compiled a bunch of great links about SOPA and PIPA, including action you can take to get your voice heard:

The White House has weighed in, responding to two petitions on the issue on their “We the People” website:
Among other responses, they suggest that, “This is not just a matter for legislation. We expect and encourage all private parties, including both content creators and Internet platform providers working together, to adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.” This reflects a value that we more typically hear from the right – not over-depending on the government to solve problems.

Tech luminary Tim O’Reilly wrote an article on the issue:
It contains some great wisdom, and information on these bills. O’Reilly is a publisher of computer-related books, some of them expensive, and thus someone you might expect to be in favor of laws that give power to content owners. But he’s not sure that the bills are even answering the right problem. There’s wisdom in the title of the article, “Before Solving a Problem, Make Sure You’ve Got the Right Problem”. From my perspective, most of the time and energy spent in politics goes into trying to solve the wrong problems, framed so narrowly that any solution will achieve nothing or even worsen things, or accepting or denying “facts” that turn out to be falsehoods.

The problem we hear proponents of SOPA/PIPA trying to solve is content-owners unfairly losing money to piracy, but O’Reilly questions whether there is even any evidence of this, writing:
“In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. There’s no question in my mind that piracy exists, that people around the world are enjoying creative content without paying for it, and even that some criminals are profiting by redistributing it. But is there actual economic harm?”

Even if there is evidence of harm, surely the problem should not be, “How do we better protect the rights of creators,” but, “How do we balance the rights of creators, with free speech rights and protecting the Internet?”

Whether or not there is harm, there is as usual more to the issue than the few talking points that one hears the most. The stated purpose of most intellectual property laws has been to promote the generation of more great stuff for everyone (growing the commons), on the assumption that creators will be more motivated to create if the government guarantees them control over their creations for some period of time. The period of time for one form of intellectual property – copyright – has been extended over time from it’s original 28 years (maximum), to the entire lifetime of the author plus another 70 or even 140 years. Among those working for reform of existing copyright law, one broad criticism is that the long term of these “protections” makes culture less participatory, as no one lives long enough to be able to freely remix and play with the culture that they grew up with. Thus, even as we pass into era of the Internet and its enabling anyone to be a publisher, the law supports a more one-way, “broadcast” sort of culture: a few content creators create, and the rest of us are supposed to passively consume. This diminishes our cultural commons greatly.

With all of that in mind, the problem could be stated as, “What balance of creators’ rights with the rights of everyone to participate in their culture will generate the most thriving commons possible?” But there are probably even more whole ways to frame things.

In another article, O’Reilly invites politicians to consult independent experts:

I’d suggest that in addition they consult a citizen deliberative council – a randomly selected group of citizens facilitated to really work together and advise us (legislators and citizens). Independent experts give background information and answer questions, and the citizens have a real conversation, pooling their diversity to come together to a more whole perspective. Denmark’s legislature has consulted citizen deliberative councils – what they call Consensus Conferences – a number of times on thorny technological issues with some success. To serve the goal of making sure we’re addressing the right problem, the group of citizens could be encouraged to consider the broader context and history of the issue, and define any problems for themselves before going on to come up with solutions. They could propose legislation, and/or actions that anyone could take without resort to the government.

In the end, they might take on the problem more or less as it has been presented, and come up with solutions that serve the interests of rights-holders without threatening free speech or the Internet. They might decide that current law is best left as is, or come up with a solution that none of us have yet thought of. Or, they might broaden the question considerably, framing a problem that none of us has yet thought of incorporating the issues of rights, the cultural commons, and more. We could then expect any solutions offered to be much deeper, more satisfying and more sustainable than the ones we tend to hear currently.

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Update: There’s some talk now among sponsoring politicians to remove the blacklist provisions, but opponents of the bills are responding mostly with concern that people will think “we’ve won” when the rest of the bill is still plenty troublesome.

Also, one resource not at that craigslist link is how to have your own website join the January 18 blackout.
It’s a simple change to your HTML, explained at

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