Yesterday’s column here on TorrentFreak on how the copyright industry keeps pushing its own interests into law was very worthwhile, and highlighted the endemic corruption of the current system quite well. I think the latest bill goes so far it would have unintended consequences, though — unintended for the copyright industry.
This latest bill in the United States, named SOPA (a Swedish word meaning “piece of utter garbage”, and I am not making that up), would essentially eliminate due process of law and right to defense. It would create a j’accuse!-style justice system, where anybody in the copyright industry could kill any company on the planet they don’t like.
Here’s how it is intended to work: The copyright industry gains the right to “notify” payment processors such as Visa that a company looks bad. Visa then gets the choice of cutting it off from payments, or becoming liable themselves in case the looking-bad company actually turns out to be doing something bad. This is a very sneaky, effective and outright evil method of extrajudicial justice.
Rather than risk liability, the payment processors would choose to lie flat and just drop these customers. It is not in Visa’s mission to push civil liberties at the expense of shareholder value. This is not wrong in itself; it is the legislators who shall make sure that extrajudicial punishment as proposed here is impossible, and the legislators are not doing their job at all.
You will note that everybody in the proposed system is completely rightsless. At the pointing of a finger, a business is dead.
Similarly, SOPA contains provisions for killing domains in the centralized DNS namespace, which was built on the assumption that bad guys don’t exist in the system and that everybody can be trusted. If it’s something we have learned by now, it is that the net must be resilient against bad guys on the wire.
What’s interesting here is that the copyright industry attacks chokepoints in the system — single points of failure that our civil liberties depend on. Perhaps we should be grateful that the copyright industry, in their distorted sense of entitlement to the world, are pointing out these weaknesses to us through this kind of despicable mail-order legislation.
Because, if there’s anything that entrepreneurs hate, as in thoroughly detest, loathe and despise, it is the situation where somebody else holds a master-key to your business and can take it over at an unknown point in the future when the entrepreneur has spent ten years of their life building it. That situation is fixed first, and only then is the business built. This fix has happened a few times before, when a united hive-mind-like industry has discarded a master-key liability like a bad habit and built something else to replace it.
In the early 1990s, a system of hyperlinked pages on the internet had become popular. People would browse those interconnected pages for information on everything from universities to businesses to people. Then, in 1993, the University of Minnesota announced that it reserved the right to charge for commercial use of this protocol, Gopher, at some point in the future. It was dropped by everybody like a bad habit and replaced by HTML and the Web, which did a worse job initially but quickly replaced and outgrew Gopher.
The exact same thing happened with the standard format for image files, a format called Graphics Interchange Format, first used on BBSes and then moving on to the early Net. When UNISYS claimed that they somehow “owned” this format and would start suing people who used it, it was dropped from every usage all over the net in the blink of an eye and replaced by a fresh-new format named Portable Network Graphics.
Can you imagine the net collectively just dropping the use of JPEG today, in a consensus hive mind decision? That’s how large these watershed events are. Much larger than, say, Facebook replacing MySpace.
What’s preventing this from happening, in general, is the scenario where something works “well enough”. If something does its job miserably but is entrenched through the entire ecosystem, as long as it doesn’t kill you and you can build a business on it, it tends to remain because of network effects. It is only when it threatens each and every entrepreneur that the industry acts as a hive mind and throws it out.
Because there’s no doubt that MasterCard, Visa and Paypal are terrible for business. A middleman that skims between three and five per cent of every transaction? And, on top, makes it impossible to charge fractions of cents in this day and age? There isn’t an entrepreneur on the planet who wouldn’t love to throw them into the water at night with a pair of knee-high cement shoes. But, like a cancer, they have spread to every corner of the ecosystem. They work terribly, but “well enough”.
SOPA would change that. It would no longer work well enough; it would be a threat to the future existence of every business. Therefore, all of a sudden, we have a market incentive from the most entrepreneurial people on the planet to build a decentralized, unseizable, unstoppable financial infrastructure that lets them get paid — and lets everybody else transfer money anonymously, invisibly and unstoppable. It would be a dictator’s nightmare. And the copyright industry’s.
What SOPA does is to make sure that the net and sharing can’t coexist with Visa, MasterCard and PayPal. This means that only the stronger of the two groups will survive, and the copyright industry has their perception of the strength balance entirely wrong. The net and the human characteristic of sharing culture and knowledge are immensely stronger.
SOPA will neither kill the net nor the sharing of culture and knowledge. But it would kill Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, and it would kill centralized breakable DNS.
“But could this really happen?”, I hear people ask in scepticism. “Visa, MasterCard and PayPal are everywhere! Everywhere!” Yeah. They are. So were Gopher and GIF.
Dictators, too, depend on these single points of failure in the net for repressing the people in their countries. We see it everywhere, and it is spreading to the West at a much faster pace than I would like or had anticipated.
Perhaps the copyright industry deserves some credit for pointing out the single points of failure in the infrastructure supporting our civil liberties, so we can rebuild those parts.
That would be a trait they would share with the world’s worst dictators. Don’t get me wrong, I think the copyright industry is plain evil and that these proposed laws are abominations. Nothing new under the sun, there. But odd as it may sound, I would rather have the copyright industry prod the weaknesses of the infrastructure defending our civil liberties, than a future repressive regime doing so. At such a dystopic point in the future, it would be much harder to fix those weaknesses.
After all, the copyright industry can’t yet drag us off in black bags in the night.