The cutting-edge tech community has long maintained a distance from both national and local politics. Instead, a sort of techno-libertarianism has characterized the politic leanings of those who have developed the internet culture and the programs and technologies we use it today.
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But the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a wide-reaching bill introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas in 2011. The bill is currently before the House Judiciary Committee, but already the online court of public opinion has weighed in. Tech Dirt has been at the fore of the movement, railing almost daily against what it sees as a major infringement on what makes the internet so great in the first place: freedom of speech and content without regard to copyright.
For the first years of its existence, the internet was a largely legilislation-free zone. Enforcement mechanism were even more sparse. As a result, it became the cultural hub of free speech, self-creation, innovation and cat videos.
Of course a new, unregulated medium presented challenges to companies that had profited from the old systems. Tower Records fought the change and lost, heavily. They didn’t lose to free content on Napster, but to a program that distributed music without having to travel to then walk around a Tower Records.
Opponents of the bill argue that copyright legislation can’t change market dynamics. People will always choose the easiest, simplest way to acquire what they want–if it’s free, all the better. That’s essentially what David Price, the piracy guru at Envisional, the research firm often used by big media companies like NBC that want to curtail piracy, said at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show.
“The content owners are really fighting the tide of the Internet,” Price said. “They’re trying to fight the flow of the Internet which is all about making content as widely available as possible, as easily as possible, as quickly as possible. They’re trying to hold back the 1.4 billon users of the Internet from doing what the Internet wants them to do.”
It’s a powerful statement. What lawmakers behind the bill don’t recognize, says Price, is that legislation is not the answer. You cannot sue your way to victory. I-tunes would have put Tower Records out of business even if Napster had never existed.
Today, Bit-Torrent allows users to download tons of content quickly and without complication. It’s simply the most efficient way on the internet to acquire content. The Torrent system harnesses the power of the internet–that a lot of people are on and want the same things– to boost speeds of acquisition and sharing. No mainstream outlet uses it effectively.
Legislation might shut a site like Bit Torrent down, at minimal cost to the host and with no action affecting the people who participating, many of whom are likely spread around the globe. It’s impossible to constrain the options of people on the internet, so all you can do is to compete by putting out a safe, legitimate, and most crucially, cutting edge technology and hoping that people decide to use it.
The SOPA issue highlights a growing tension between the tech community and congress. The essential mistrust is a belief that those on Capitol Hill just don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to tech issues, and are using their power in ignorance of well known best practices.
But this is also the fault of the tech community that has isolated itself from the concerns of real-world governance. However, this dynamic is changing. Code For America is an organization that, like Teach For America, sends smart people in to a tough situation. But instead of education, Code For America addresses the tech deficit in American cities.
Founder Jennifer Pahlka sees people migrating from the tech community to public service. The goal: equip the government with the tools to react as efficiently as the internet does. “It’s something that needs levers and inputs far deeper than just voting for a candidate,” says Pahlka. “In 2000s, people wanted government to look more like businesses. Now people say to us ‘so you want the government to work like an internet startup.’ And we say ‘we want it to look like the internet itself. Anybody can participate, you can create in a permissionless way to create the world you want to live in.”
This is, of course, the tack that national lawmakers should take as well. Collaborate with the experts in the field and find out what works and what doesn’t, then legislate around that. The internet is a frontier, but it isn’t lawless, only self-policing. The quickest gun isn’t some rugged law man, but a collective impulse to find the easiest way of doing things.
In legislating the internet, Congressmen like Lamar Smith would do well to observe that a lack of government regulation is not the same thing as lawlessness.