SOPA and the danger of groupthink

Hooray, we won! Yes? Alright, so let's talk about how we fight.

Did you read Vox Media's stance on SOPA the other day? You really should. Read that first, and then before you read the rest of what I have to say, I want to be clear: my opinion is not in any way the official opinion of The Verge, or even tangentially related to the official opinion of The Verge. That's why I'm in the forum right now. These words are my own.

I support what Nilay and Lauren put together wholeheartedly. Read it again, it's great.

I like it so much, in fact, that I'm wondering why I haven't read anything else on the internet so far as nuanced and clearly worded as that statement. Instead, what I've seen is a scary amount of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about SOPA that makes it difficult to make an informed opinion about the ill-fated legislation. Hyperbole can be an effective tool, useful in an emergency for getting attention ("YOU'RE ON FIRE, YOU'RE ABOUT TO DIE," for instance), but on the word-filled internet I expect to be able to find something reasoned and informative to back up the sensational headlines. Even the in-depth breakdown of the bill on Reddit's blog resorted to hyperbole, and missed much of the subtlety that every law includes, either in writing or in implementation.

If your whole argument is hyperbole and worst-case-scenarios, I start to wonder what you're covering up, even if you're giving me the straight-up truth. It's the boy-who-called-wolf syndrome. I, perhaps naively, doubt a law currently in debate by Congress would end free speech as we know it, no matter how egregious (and SOPA is certainly egregious). In fact, after a couple hundred years of chilling out, the constitutional right to free speech is better protected than ever, and any law that actually infringes upon it would (I assume, I expect, I believe) be struck down in court without much trouble.

Naturally, it shouldn't have to come to that. Congress should be well informed of the dangers of SOPA, and make the clear and obvious decision to go in another direction. Unfortunately, they're being shouted at, not reasoned with. The petitions and call-in campaigns are important grassroots efforts, and I don't want to belittle them, but I also see why a stodgy old congressman, chewing on his cigar, twiddling his gold cufflinks, could see those campaigns as desperate attempts by pirates to protect their piracy.

Is the person bugging my staff with incessant calls the same person who puts a movie up on YouTube and writes "no copyright infringement intended" in the description? Is this the person who steals music constantly, but claims to be a valuable instrument in the promotion of the bands they listen to? Or is this an expert on copyright law trying to give me valuable guidance? It's so hard to tell.

As much as I'd like to rag on the rank-and-file pirate (like me), the real worst offender here is Google. There might as well be a little "no copyright infringement intended" disclaimer below the YouTube logo. Google had to be dragged kicking and screaming by content owners to its current state of copyright protection, but the company still profits hugely off the long tail of piracy.

Despite this, Google has the gall to put up a "End Piracy, Not Liberty" site, and throw the considerable heft of a blacked-out logo behind it. The site even embeds a hyper-sensational "INTERNET WITHOUT A VOICE" YouTube video, and makes simple strawmen of the bills at hand. This is like someone convicted of gun violence arguing for the right to bear arms. It doesn't matter if they're right or wrong, it doesn't matter if there's a whole constitutional amendment in their favor, they're the wrong messenger. And I have a tendency to doubt any messenger that must resort entirely to propaganda.

The truth is, piracy is something that's incredibly harmful to a growing number of industries. As much as unbridled, ubiquitous for-pay digital distribution of all forms of media would solve many of the problems of piracy, you can't blame content creators for being terrified. We keep hoping Stockholm Syndrome will set in and the RIAA or MPAA will start to pander to the interests of their "customers," but meanwhile they're still trying to escape the initial kidnapping.

Companies like Google should be at the forefront of lobbying for their own reforms to copyright laws, and be putting their revenues toward best-in-class policing of their own sites. Contrast Google with Wikipedia, for instance. While I pity the millions of students abandoned by Wikipedia for an entire day during the SOPA blackout, Wikipedia has every right to speak against heavy-handed copyright law. It has an ultra sensitive approach to the media it uses and the attribution it gives to sources (just read the footnotes, or click on the image, in any Wikipedia article... now look at a random TV clip on YouTube). It also has an incredible, world-changing quantity of user-contributed content that's worth protecting at all costs.

Ultimately, SOPA is a bad bill and should be fought at all costs. But what worries me is the way we fight on the internet. There's a difference between grassroots activism and mob mentality. Debates and megaphones. One way changes hearts and minds on an issue, or at least lets a minority view be heard and understood, the other way burns bridges and entrenches sides. One way is nuanced enough to understand that Megaupload was a criminal organization that the government has a right (responsibility, even?) to crack down on, while the other side pumps a fist when Anonymous engages in internet terrorism to defend the right to steal.

If we resort to torch-and-pitchforks in every crisis, following propaganda and hyperbole wherever it leads, eventually we'll torch-and-pitchfork the wrong monster, and end up like the villagers in Beauty and the Beast. Sooner or later the internet will end up drowning a witch to see if she'll float. And look, she drowned! Who's next?

I wish everybody could spend a day in our virtual newsroom at The Verge. Without fail, every week there's some new sensational piece of news floating around the tech space about some lawsuit, or some trademark dispute, or some privacy infringement, or some patent infringement, or some new end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it law in committee. We always bug Nilay about it, and 9 times out of 10 he deflates the hype. Not that there isn't news, but usually there's less (or more) than meets the eye, and he clarifies that to the rest of us laypeople at The Verge, and then finds an evenhanded way to address the issue. Nilay is only one man, so he doesn't get a chance to write a whole diatribe for The Verge every time this happens, but did nobody else go to law school? Sometimes I wonder. The next time you reblog some propaganda, think of Nilay, won't you?