A needless SOPA opera

If you've been online this week, you've probably noticed some odd things going on. I'm not even talking about the Internet's daily "Here's a video of Kim Kardashian and an amorous panda" sort of oddness. No, this week, the Google logo's been blacked out, Wikipedia went dark for a day, and many websites had strange catchphrases on them, like "Down with SOPA", "Say No to PIPA" and "Click Here For XXX Ukranian Cheerleaders". This week, the Internet went to war to protect what it believes are its rights, against a legislation that it feels is trying to destroy them.

SOPA, for those who came in late, is a proposed American legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA is Kate Middleton's better looking sister. Clubbed together, both acts aim to stop online piracy, except they want to do it by putting websites in the online equivalent of Guantanamo.

Shooting butterflies with rifles: SOPA and PIPA aim to stop online
piracy, except they want to do it by putting websites in the online
equivalent of Guantanamo.

The legislations (in their current form) would seek to cut off complete access to any website carrying pirated content. It would also prevent payment gateways from doing business with said websites, thus choking its financial lifeline. You're probably thinking "Well, that's fair" and "Sites shouldn't host illegal things in the first place", and "I should probably download that final season of LOST before the website disappears."

But SOPA would theoretically allow legislators to shut down all of YouTube because one video some child in Paraguay uploaded used Justin Beiber music without permission. While subjecting the world to Justin Beiber is a heinous crime, to punish all of YouTube for one person's mistake is overkill. It's like using a nuclear bomb to kill a mosquito, or invading an entire country just because a few people in it sheltered terrorists, and it's not like America would ever do that, right?

A little digging reveals that SOPA was introduced by Lamar Smith, a representative from Texas, presumably after he tried the Texan solution i.e. shooting his computer, and it didn't work. What's mind-bending about SOPA is that it reveals once more (much like Kapil Sibal's woeful attempt to censor social networking) that legislators don't understand the Internet, and don't want to.

The truth is that the world is still run by men and women who think the web is something a spider spins, and a hyperlink is a really excited chain. It's a little more complicated than that. Data-transmission is power, and like all power, it can be used for good (more pictures of Pippa Middleton), or for evil (more downloads of the Brian Silas-Piano version of Kolaveri-Di). The answer doesn't lie in destroying the means of data-transmission itself. Bad drivers cause accidents, but banning roads isn't the answer.

SOPA also presumes that piracy is an inherently evil act, without recognising that it's actually a cultural force. Case in point, Russell Peters, who would never have had two sold out Indian tours if it weren't for the fact that bootleg copies of his video spread like wildfire. SOPA supporters could argue that blocking the video could have prevented Speedy Singh from ever being made, but okay. Piracy's fostered everything from hyper-articulate pop-culture junkies (think Sheldon Cooper) to staggeringly creative works of appropriation art (think mash-up videos).

SOPA also doesn't bother to question a pirate's motives, possibly because it would require SOPA supporters to confront uncomfortable questions about themselves, like why do people pirate things? How can a change in my method of content delivery (as opposed to punishing someone else) stop piracy? And is it okay for fat people to wear G-strings?

Consider that the Motion Picture Association of America is one of the bill's largest sponsors. SOPA (and indeed the MPAA) wants the onus to be on the pirates, and the websites that allow them free-reign. They don't want to consider that their own approach may be the problem. I wouldn't pirate a film if I were assured its release at the exact same time as the rest of the world (and if popcorn didn't cost 4,000 rupees a tub).

I wouldn't pirate TV if I got an episode of my favourite show at the same time as the rest of the world. If you, as a content provider, won't give it to me, I'm going to use the easiest delivery mechanism available to me.

And that is why the Internet went to war. To protect itself from a ham-fisted piece of legislation that seeks to condemn it without even bothering to understand it. So say no to SOPA. Say no to PIPA. And yay for Ukranian cheerleaders.

Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo

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