Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SOPA/PIPA should be opposed, but we deserve a better spokesperson than Google

(Originally published January 18, 2012)

By now you probably have heard (if only by wondering why you can’t get access to Wikipedia or noticing that Google has a strange logo) that many websites decided to change their appearance today to highlight their opposition to the SOPA/PIPA bills passing through Congress.  While the bills certainly deserve resistance because of the consequences should they pass, I feel conflicted about the role that Google, amongst others, is playing in this drama.
Today, a click on the Google logo on its main page will take you to a SOPA-themed political appeal headlined “End Piracy, Not Liberty.”  The page states: “Millions of Americans oppose SOPA and PIPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the U.S.” 
On the one hand, I’m happy to see Silicon Valley flexing its political muscle.  It often happens that the economic interests of software companies dovetail with the public interest (some forms of anti-censorship, for instance) and I’ve been wondering exactly what it would take for SV companies to alter their landing pages to advance a legislative agenda.  Now I know.
On the other hand, Google doesn’t object to these bills because they infringe on liberty -- Google opposes them because they are a danger to its business.  Corporations often dress up an issue of economic self-interest to make it appear as if some real human concern was at stake in order to rally the public to their side (other examples of this would be when the pharmaceutical industry claims it needs patent extensions for public health, or when the finance industry demands certain types of bailouts with favorable terms, threatening that the economy would collapse otherwise ... deceptive buzzwords usually abound -- ‘innovation,’ ‘competitiveness,’ etc.).  This is the “economic growth” that Google refers to -- Google’s economic growth.  It just so happens that in this case, preventing arbitrary domain takedowns coincides with Google’s business concerns, but one could easily imagine the scenario turning out otherwise.
To wit, Google has a history of cutting deals with publishers and media companies in which both sides of the business deal benefit but the gains to the public are either little, unclear or nonexistent.  To take one example, YouTube (a Google property) implemented a content identification system which allowed easier takedowns of copyrighted content.
In fact, the very language of Google’s appeal makes it clear that Google doesn’t oppose all censorship, only certain kinds.  “Piracy” refers to file sharing which violates copyright law.  Copyright itself was created as a censorship mechanism, and continues to operate as such.  On the web, one can see copyright’s censoring hand sweep up everything from babies dancing to Prince to presidential campaign ads.  Google has an interest in preserving this kind of censoring ability, as it can use the law to prevent otherentities from competing with it.  The reality is a bit more complex, as Google benefits from strong copyright enforcement in some areas and suffers in others, but clearly with the SOPA appeal it has made a strategic calculation to come down on the side of embracing copyright enforcement generally.

So I’m glad that Google is lending its lobbying weight to opposing SOPA/PIPA, but rueful that it takes institutional economic pressure to send any kind of noticeable signal to legislators, cognizant that Google's opposition to censorship is far from complete, and mindful that Google’s allegiance -- and that of any software company -- can be bought, reversing at a moment’s notice.
UPDATE: It's been a wild past few days in the copyright world.  A new supreme court rulingsaying moving works from the public domain to have copyrights on them again is A-OK, theshut down of Megaupload (and obligatory Anonymous retaliation), as well as all the SOPA/PIPA stuff.  A good read with all of this in mind is the Swedish Pirate Party founder's recent article on Techdirt.
UPDATE2: Good cartoon illustrating the copyright is censorship point

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