08 February 2012
I never blogged on the SOPA kerfuffle; it happened while my creative(?) energies were elsewhere.
Looking back, a few minor points emerge:
Some commentators got all excited: "look what we did! What shall we do next?!" "We" meaning right-thinking internet-type people. The answer, obviously, is nothing: this, "we" agreed about, most things, we don't. I think Wikipedia's claim: "Although Wikipedia's articles are neutral, it's existence is not" was basically justified.
Libertarian commentators had a lot of fun jeering at leftist techies who wanted every aspect of the economy to be regulated by the government except the internet. The criticism is only justified against those who demand that government regulate things but don't specify exactly how they should regulate them (others can say they're in favour of regulation, but just want it to be better). But that's most people. So yeah.
In some ways, it's a disappointment that SOPA didn't go through; the circumvention techniques that would have been developed if it had would have been interesting and useful. At the end of the day, the biggest threat to free computing isn't legislation, it's that in a stable market, locked-down "appliance" devices are more useful to the non-tinkering user than general-purpose, hackable devices. So far, we tinkerers still have the GP devices, because the locked-down ones go obsolete too quickly even for lay users. I'm not sure whether that situation will persist for the long term: I've looked at the question before.
But if the government makes stupid laws that can easily be circumvented using general-purpose devices, the demand for those devices will be helpfully supported.
Note when I talk about circumvention, I'm not talking about copyright infringement. That was not what the argument was about. While I lean toward the view that copyright is necessarily harmful, I'm not certain and it's not that big a deal. The important argument is all about enforcement costs: given that copyright exists, whose responsibility is it to enforce it. The problem with SOPA was that it would have put crippling copyright enforcement costs on any facilitator of internet communication.
Currently, internet discussion is structured mostly around large service providers — in the case of this blog Google — providing platforms for user content. If those service providers become legally liable for infringing user content, the current structure collapses. The platforms would either have to go offshore, with users relying on the many easy ways of circumventing the SOPA provisions attempting to limit access to offshore infringers, or else evade the enforcers by going distributed, redundant and mobile. What will be to Blogger as Kazaa and then BitTorrent were to Napster? It would have been interesting to find out, and possibly beneficial. There is a lot of marginal censorship that can be applied to easy-target platforms like Blogger or Wikipedia that will not induce sufficient users to create alternatives, as the sheer idiot clumsiness of SOPA would probably have done.
(Note Wikipedia might have been spared, but it would have suffered, because if existing less respectable platforms were removed, their content would migrate to the likes of Wikipedia. If 4chan did not exist, Wikipedia would become 4chan.)
Actually, it's interesting to think about how to blog over a pure P2P framework. Without comments, you're publishing a linear collection of documents. (I don't think you can handle comments — we'd need something more like trackbacks). Posts would need to be cryptographically signed and have unique ids. Serial numbers would be useful so readers would know if they'd missed anything. I wonder if anyone's worked on it. A sort of bittorrent-meets-git hybrid would be really interesting — search this list of hosts for any git commits signed by any of these keys...
The dance of censorship and evasion is very difficult to predict in detail. I found some time ago that the way to find the text of an in-copyright book is to take a short phrase from it (that isn't a well known quotation or the title) and google it. That used to work. I wanted some text from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall the other day, so I did the usual, and got pages and pages of forum posts, containing chunks of the book interspersed with links to pages selling MMO currency and fake LVMH crap. My access to illicit literature was being messed up by someone else's illicit SEO.