Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Stop Internet Piracy Act

I interrupt my analysis of Sean Fairchild's New Atheist Strategy to discuss the campaign today regarding the Stop Internet Piracy Act. This post is still relevant to that series in that it covers the subject if bringing about a political objective.

Many web sites today have gone dark, allegedly to protest an attempt at internet censorship by means of House Resolution 3261 - the Stop Online Piracy Act. Censorship is a bad thing, so it people count it as a good deed to be taking a stand against censorship.

Unfortunately, this interpretation of the bill is not entirely accurate. The bill does not censor anything. It does not identify any set of content and say, "This shall not be shown". There is no censorship in this bill.

There is a component of the bill that blocks communication. However, the communication being blocked is material that has copyright protection. We have always had limits on reproducing copyright material – and we have never called it censorship. To count as censorship, material has to be blocked because of the message it contains.

Ultimately, this bill concerns the question of who will bear the cost of policing copyright laws already in effect.

However, some employee in the marketing department at Google probably figured out that if they used the word "censorship" in their campaign against this legislation, they would get a huge knee-jerk reaction from people who do not do their own research that would be politically useful.

Anyway, let us take an honest look at the details of this legislation.

The entertainment industry (and others) creates electronic content. They invest time, energy, and resources. Their goal (among other things) is to make money. The way they make money is by either charging people directly to experience the content they create, or by charging them indirectly by directing their attention to advertisements - where the advertiser pays a fee.

However, we now live in an age where this type of content, once created, is hard to control. Somebody else comes along and takes the content. Often, the pirate will also charge people a fee to see it - either directly or through advertisement revenue. Thus, taking for themselves the revenue that would otherwise have gone to the people who created the content.

The people who create this content view this as a form of theft.

And . . . they are right.

The pirate does not accept any of the costs of production. The original creator pays the writers, the actors, and the crew to create the content. They pay the rent on the buildings and buy the equipment. They create a content that they think will bring money. Then somebody who bears none of the costs comes along and siphons off a share of the potential revenue into their own pocket.

Even when the pirate gives the material away for free, we still have an act of theft. This would be similar to a person going into a store, carting things off the shelf, and setting it in the street for others to take. It would be accurate to say that the store owner has been robbed, even though the thief did not materially profit.

Let's be honest. Companies such as Google and Facebook make a great deal of money by wrapping their advertisements around this pirated content. If their bank account increases by one billion dollars per year, then - moral considerations aside - it is worthwhile to invest a few tens of millions of dollars in a campaign to protect that revenue stream.

When they go to the marketing department (and they do have a professional marketing department) with the project of defeating this legislation, some genius in the marketing department is likely to come up with the idea, "We can get a lot more mileage with this money if we brand our efforts as anti-censorship. This will generate a politically useful knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people who do not look at the issue in any detail, and very few will look at the issue in detail. It does not matter whether this is true or not. What matters is that people will believe it."

Somebody in the marketing department also probably also figured out that Rupert Murdoch is widely disliked by the target audience. Therefore, if the marketing campaign can attach Rupert Murdoch's name to this legislation, they can increase the opposition to this bill. Again, there is no logical inference to be drawn from the premise "Rupert Murdoch favors this legislation" to "this is bad legislation." However, marketing departments tend not to care about validity or invalidity. They care about cause and effect. In marketing, the value of an inference rests in its consequences, not in its validity.

This is how marketing works - when it is used by people who care only about producing a useful effect, but who does not care whether their claims are true or their arguments are valid.

(Note: This is very closely related to the issue I discussed with respect to Sean Faircloth's atheist strategy, in A Question of Style)

The fact remains, these claims are false or invalid.

This does not imply that I am in favor of this legislation. It has some real, legitimate problems.

On the media side of the equation, one obvious goal they have is to shut down or hobble their competition. One of the ways to hobble competitors is to saddle them with extra costs. In this case, the relevant costs are those associated with enforcing this legislation.

Furthermore, the creators of this pirated content also make money by wrapping advertising around that content, or by selling direct access to that content. They have to compete against people who produce similar content at a lower price – or for free. Anything they can do to harm a competing industry or the producers of free content gives potential customers fewer options. It is every company's dream - for a company that has leadership that lacks a conscience - to increase its profits while dumping the costs onto others.

Another legitimate objection to this legislation is that it has the same moral status as using a hand grenade on a crowded street to stop a purse snatcher from getting away. It creates a lot of collateral damage. In this case, blocking a site that contains pirated content also blocks the legitimate content hosted on that same site. No doubt, some of that legitimate content exists as a type if "human shield" - innocent people put in harm's way to protect illegitimate activities.

Yet, this issue is still not clear cut. A terrorist organization that also runs a hospital and food distribution network will have its funding cut off without regard to our ability to distinguish between its terrorist and other activities. The mere fact that a legitimate activity is harmed by action taken against illegitimate activity is a point to consider, but it does not decide the issue one way or another.

However, that neither of these legitimate concerns count as censorship. The sites are not being blocked in virtue of their content. The legitimate site would end up being blocked in this case regardless of its content - merely because of its proximity to a criminal site. People are using the term 'censorship' here entirely because it generates an emotional response.

These are legitimate concerns. However, the 'censorship' objection is not. This is not so much about censorship as it is about two groups of ultra-rich people trying to use the government to control the flow of money into their bank accounts. But that does not sell very well in the political marketplace, so useful deceptions are employed instead - on both sides of the debate.

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