A SOPA Mess
The creative industries have the ear of the US government right now - but they're whispering the wrong things
There are certain topics that it's extremely difficult to discuss intelligently and reasonably. Every walk of life has its own version of these - immigration, for example, is almost impossible to discuss in British political circles without rapidly being mobbed by a crowd of straw men and buried under the sheer weight of prejudices masquerading as logical arguments, with both sides of the debate equally guilty of rapidly dragging it down into a nasty gutter brawl.
In the games business, piracy is one such topic. A great many words are expended on the question of piracy, of its impact and of possible solutions to the problem, and not very many of them are remotely useful. "We need, as an industry, to have a full debate about piracy" is a line you hear every now and then at conferences, which is simultaneously totally true and a completely meaningless statement. It's not that there is no debate around piracy, nor is it the case that there aren't a lot of voices being heard. Rather, it's the case that the debate isn't very good and most of the voices are shouting and stupid.
It's not that there is no debate around piracy. Rather, it's the case that the debate isn't very good and most of the voices are shouting and stupid
Never has this dismal state of affairs been more apparent than in the discussions around SOPA, the USA's latest legislative effort at protecting copyright online. Any discussion around SOPA rapidly degenerates into two polarised sides with precious little common ground between them and precious little logic supporting their arguments. On one hand, defenders of SOPA shrilly exclaim that "something" must be done about copyright, and decry opponents of the bill as thieves and anarchists. On the other, opponents of SOPA characterise the bill's supporters variously as corporate shills, luddite dinosaurs, and profit-seekers so blinded by avarice that they can't see the dangers posed to free speech and expression by the bill's measures.
The problem is that there's a measure of truth on both sides of the argument, which gets completely buried by the polarised nature of the debate. Something does need to be done about the scale of piracy, absolutely - it just might not be legislative in nature and definitely needs to be more considered than a knee-jerk reaction from terrified industries. Many of the opponents of SOPA are unhelpful in that they promote an unrealistic view of a world where everything digital is available for free, and in doing so further ghettoise those on the other side of the debate.
Yet the opponents of the bill are themselves correct about two very important (and seemingly contradictory) points. Firstly, SOPA won't work. It will do precious little to impede internet piracy, which remains at the cutting edge of distribution technology, far beyond the reach of any of the measures enshrined in the law. The Internet itself militates against attempts to restrict content distribution - it's now a cliche but remains entirely true to say that the distributed architecture of the network, originally designed to allow military communications to continue in a time of nuclear war, interprets censorship as damage and routes around it accordingly.
Secondly, while it won't impede piracy in any meaningful way, SOPA's provisions could have far-reaching consequences for freedom of expression online - something which has been increasingly under threat in recent years both from censorious approaches from national governments and from corporate efforts to limit "net neutrality", in effect threatening to create a multi-tier Internet in which not all traffic is treated equally and, ultimately, not all users may have access to all services.