Say Nopa to SOPA! Now What?

Where were you when the Internet's lights went out?

Me, I discovered how often I use Wikipedia when researching stories -- which is to say, too often. So the inability to reach the world's largest encyclopedia yesterday was a bit annoying until I found a workaround. (Use Google's cached copy of each page -- shhh, don't tell anyone.)

Still, I appreciate Wikipedia's contribution to the Stop SOPA soap opera, because it was the key to yesterday's symbolic Web blackout.

All a protest like yesterday's blackout can do is shine a light on a particular problem. After Jimmy Wales's crew signed on, that light turned from a tiny spark into a flood lamp. Everybody with an Internet connection and/or school-age child knows what Wikipedia is. Google felt compelled to follow suit in a nominal way, by blocking its logo if not its actual site.

That meant mainstream media had to pay attention, and the protest couldn't be written off as a "tantrum" thrown by a bunch of pro-piracy geeks, no matter what Rupert Murdoch and MPAA president Christopher Dodd want you to believe.

Now that the world has said nopa to SOPA, we still have her wall-eyed half sister PIPA to deal with. Senator Harry Reid has said he plans to continue to push that legislation forward.

What should we do about the scourge of online piracy? In a blog post, Google's chief legal beagle Dave Drummond suggests a simpler and more effective solution: follow the money.

Fighting online piracy is extremely important. We are investing a lot of time and money in that fight. Last year alone we acted on copyright takedown notices for more than 5 million webpages and invested more than $60 million in the fight against ads appearing on bad sites. And we think there is more that can be done here--like targeted and focused steps to cut off the money supply to foreign pirate sites. If you cut off the money flow, you cut the incentive to steal.

This is the tactic used to track down spammers. The CAN-SPAM Act was too little too late, but at least it opened the door for AOL, EarthLink, Microsoft, and other service providers to sue the biggest spammers for every dime of their ill-gotten gains. Along with various state antispam laws, it allowed prosecutors to toss the worst of the worst into the slammer.

Did this cure the spam problem? Heck no. Every piece of email I receive still passes through three to five spam filters, and some crap still gets through. But the only collateral damage is the occasional piece of real mail gets lost inside my spam folder. Meanwhile the worst players got what was coming to them.

No one would shed a tear if the proprietors of FreeMoviesUpTheWazoo.com were hauled off and thrown into the pokey. But service providers shouldn't be forced to police it, we shouldn't have to pay for it, the Net's infrastructure shouldn't be broken to accommodate it, and innocent websites shouldn't have to suffer for it.

If the music and movie producers are really losing money to piracy, it's their job to do something about it. Taxpayers and ISPs shouldn't have to foot the bill for enforcement. Period, end stop.

But let's get real here for a moment. There will always be pirate sites, just as there will always be knockoffs of Gucci bags and Rolex watches. It's a cost of doing business. In a way, it's a form of guerilla marketing: "Our stuff is so good, people who can't otherwise afford to pay for it are settling for cheap copies."

Pirated movies and music are even cheaper: usually available for free or with a nominal subscription to a pirate download site. But the argument holds. Just as someone who buys a Gucci knockoff is unlikely to buy a real Gucci -- and is thus not depriving the maker of overpriced handbags of a potential customer -- the person who downloads 10,000 songs for free is highly unlikely to purchase those 10,000 songs at iTunes. Maybe a few hundred at most.

The cost of piracy is real, it's just nowhere near as large as the media moguls are claiming it is. The cost of passing a badly written law to do a job the media moguls should really be doing for themselves? Much, much higher.

How were you affected by the Stop SOPA blackout? Post your tales of dark intrigue below or email them to me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Say nopa to SOPA! Now what?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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