Thursday, January 19, 2012

Please Try to Pay Attention

This post is not about SOPA. I am against it but as a non-American all I can do is be angry. What this post is about is the people complaining about SOPA. My twitter feed, RSS reader and regular news sites have been full to breaking point with blackouts and rallying cries from gaming press, tech blogs and general internet types trying to get everyone to kick up enough of a stink to get the bill quashed. This is political activism and democracy at its finest, the common man making his voice heard to change public policy.

Only it's not, is it? It's the common man making his voice heard to prevent a change to public policy that no one in the public seems to want. Which leads us to ask why the change is being made. If no individual thinks that the specific measures or even general principles of the bill are a good idea, how did somebody get the idea to draft it in the first place and then garner enough support that there is some chance of it passing? That's easy: big corporate groups like the RIAA have spent a pile of cash that would make small countries envious on buying enough politicians to get their bill introduced. There is maybe, maybe one guy in the senate or congress who knows about the extent of online piracy and thinks that a bill like SOPA is the best solution available. Everybody else took the money they were offered by lobbyists and promised to vote accordingly. For some reason this isn't called bribery, it's called the political process. I'm only passingly familiar with the Jack Abramoff case, but what's truly scandalous about it (to someone outside of America at least) is not the illegal things he did but all the unethical and corrupt things he did that were legal. Things that are still legal.

And now all the people who blank out when they hear people shouting and complaining about the role of lobbyists and the disproportionate voice money has are suddenly political activists. People who shrugged and said "yeah, that's politics" if someone mentioned Super PACs or Supreme Court decisions are outraged that their favourite sites might get shut down. Maybe, just maybe, the time to pay attention was when somebody was carefully changing the system so that buying votes became not only standard procedure but also somehow regarded as the way things should be.

SOPA is not some rogue piece of legislation in a system that otherwise work tirelessly for the betterment of society, it is just the first piece of exploitative, corrupt, cynical legislation to impact people who didn't think they needed to care about how the country they live in is being run. I can understand if your attitude to the political system is if it ain't broke don't fix it; on the other hand you should probably have checked occasionally to see if someone was trying to break it, because now it's going to be a right bastard to fix. And I don't think a dubstep remix of The Macarena is going to get the job done.


  1. I hear what you're saying, and for the most part, I agree. However, I still think there's a point to making noise. Here are some things to think about.

    First, as an un-american, you can complain to the state department. Lots of those blackout pages have a handy link. It doesn't have quite the same impact as complaining to one's legislature, but it does make a difference: State needs to hear that this is a disaster for their efforts spreading free speech abroad, in addition to our legislature hearing about what a disaster it will be at home.

    In order for people like Lawrence Lessig to do their work and try to get money out of our political system, they need to be able to make their voices heard. This press against SOPA is effectively a stopgap measure. If it passes, do you really think that big money groups will refrain from using the ability to shut down websites and seize computers with no due process against their political enemies? It'll be a free-for-all of spurious copyright claims (background music, fair-use news quotes, maybe even just a link in a comment) to shut down entire sites and quash political speech. Stopping SOPA is not solving the root problem but it's a problem with a lot more support and a lot less nuance than the root problem with the system. Also, there may be the effect that increased awareness about SOPA illuminates the corruption that lead to its creation.

    The overwhelming resistance to SOPA (it's the front page of every news site) may also be an object lesson for a couple of groups. First, large lobbying groups who spend billions of dollars directly on influencing politicians might learn that there are certain entities that they can annoy, like Wikipedia, which (A) are not corporations and don't have their same motive structure, and (B) can go *directly to almost the entire electorate* if they are sufficiently provoked, bypassing the need to out-spend them on the politicians themselves. Granted, Wikipedia can't do this every week or it loses its power, but it does send the message that there is a line, and it can be crossed. In addition to this power, Google (who is, at least, for now, on the right side of issues like this) also has the traditional corporate piles of money and could start throwing its weight around using both strategies simultaneously, which could be very scary to its opponents.

    Finally, the politicians themselves may get an inkling of the possibility that the electorate can be aligned against them simply by communicating amongst itself and being made aware of what they're doing. This would change the dynamic of trying to buy a politician: they're not going to stay bought if they know that a viral twitter campaign against them might get 10x as much traffic as the very expensive television ad campaign that you bought them. The anti-SOPA coalition proves that it's possible for this to happen, even if it does take a particularly egregious level of corruption to provoke this kind of response.

    (Note, also, that unlike almost all political issues in this country, this is not being painted into the same tired old left/right culture war BS. I have hope that this may set a precedent where other issues may be discussed on their merits rather than their cultural affiliations.)

    1. First, thanks for the detailed reply. I should clarify that I think SOPA is a bill that should not have got within a hundred miles of congress in the first place. I'm also glad on some level to see both individuals and also organisations with the reach of something like Wikipedia taking an active stance on toxic legislation. What I'm angry at it the inevitability that it will be a once off event.

      My issue is that the vast majority of these people seemed uninterested or wilfully ignorant about the policies and bills that have been passed that have got the system into a position where a bill like SOPA can even get introduced. It may well be that SOPA will be the catalyst of a re-emergence of general engagement in the political process, but my guess is a lot of these same people who are so stridently anti-SOPA won't have a word to say about the next bill that allows corporations to run for public office or whatever abomination comes next. The reason will be "well, it's not really our area" or "we try not to discuss politics on this site" or "I don't really pay much attention to what goes on in Washington".

      My hope would be not so much that that politicians become aware that the electorate can be aligned against them by nothing more than open communication, but rather that the electorate itself become aware of the fact. I suppose that was the point of my anger about the publicity SOPA has got: a bill this heinous wouldn't exist if the general population, especially the middle class, realised that they had both the ability and the responsibility to pay attention to what their elected official are doing _all the time_ and not just when it infringes on their areas of interest.


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