Open ... and Shut In response to internet technology companies leading a rousing protest against SOPA and PIPA, these bills appear to be doomed to ignominious defeat. Even the co-sponsors of these anti-piracy bills are deserting their legislation, leaving the tech world to cheer its success.
But what kind of success did we achieve?
As written, the SOPA and PIPA were bad bills. They deserved criticism and lots of second thoughts. Through protests led by Wikipedia, Google, and others, the anti-SOPA/PIPA crowd managed to get the ear of Congress and, to a lesser degree, the general public, and shout down bad legislation.
And that's the problem, actually. The shouting.
Former Mozilla CEO John Lilly captured this best, arguing, "What’s extremely discouraging to me right now is that I don’t really see how we [the tech world and the US Congress] can have a nuanced, technically-informed, respectful discussion/debate/conversation/working relationship."
Instead all we get is the media industries engaging in back room lobbying to get bad bills passed while the tech world shotguns abuse until Congress capitulates. Talk about a dysfunctional relationship.
Part of the problem, as Lilly captures in a follow-up post, is that the tech world is largely reactionary. It really wasn't until Microsoft came before the US Justice Department for antitrust abuses that the tech world woke up to the fact that it was subject to anything other than the free market. Since then companies like Oracle and Google have set up increasingly substantial lobbying arms in Washington DC, but this isn't really the answer.
The tech world needs to find better ways to educate government than replicating the covert lobbying used against it or the megaphone protests we've seen with SOPA and PIPA.
Some things that feel obvious to many techies simply aren't outside Silicon Valley. Hence, Steve Blank can write that "SOPA is a symbol of the movie industry's failure to innovate," chuckling that these "old world" industries simply "don't get it". But in so doing he overlooks the very real concerns such industries have about protecting their content, as pointed out by The Wall Street Journal. We can blithely proclaim that digitisation obviates copyright, but the truth isn't nearly so black and white.
Even an open-source revolutionary like Marc Fleury groks this, writing in support of SOPA:
Increasingly the western world relies on IP to make a living. Since we produce less "real world" goods and more "digital world" goods we open ourselves to piracy. If we are to move to an information based economy there needs to be a limit to the infringement of IP.
You or I may disagree, but it would be useful if we were to do so through thoughtful conversation, rather than 140-character bursts of indignation, self-censorship of websites, etc.
Because, as The Register's Andrew Orlowski opines, in a must read article, "While the legislation is now moribund, the underlying concerns behind SOPA haven't gone away" and "SOPA will return next year, and the year after, until the issues have been tackled head on." Victory isn't victory when a bill is killed simply because it's been shouted down, but rather when there is a meeting of the minds over the essential facts around a problem, and real solutions are broached and agreed upon.
It's a discussion we need to have out in the open, without all the name-calling and sloganeering. Ironically, this sort of nuanced communication would likely encourage the rest of the tech industry – the Ciscos and IBMs and Oracles of the world – to join the conversation. To date, they've largely stayed on the sidelines, as they have interests on both sides of the debate.
We all do, in fact. Many of us simply don't recognise it yet, and won't until the essence of our businesses are threatened. This isn't to suggest that government should prop up dying industries. I'm all for creative destruction. But we shouldn't be blasé about the issues, assuming the people on the other side of the discussion are mindless idiots wedded to an antiquated business model.
SOPA is bad legislation. But the "discussion" around SOPA is worse, and points to a gap between the internet world and governments, one that we should be seeking to bridge, not deepen. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.