Feeling Blu, more on SOPA, DRM, blah blah blah

It looks like VLC media player will soon support encrypted Blu-rayplayback. This seems relevant to the discussion started by Pete and continued by J (hardware) and Steven (software). I’d just like to add that AnyDVD HD should be legal to own in the US as far as I know, since it allows you to backup discs you already own. I should get around to doing exactly that, in fact, because all our Disney DVDs are getting scratched to heck.

Actually, its probably illegal to download a torrent of a DVD you already own but is too scratched to view, and using the torrent to burn a new DVD copy. But it shouldn’t be, which is why I return to my rant about DRM and the huge wasted opportunity that was SOPA activism.

Speaking of SOPA – great article at Big Think going against the grain, titled “Hooray for SOPA!”. I think it’s a great point to make, especially about how small content producers get screwed by piracy – just look at the state of plagiarism on Amazon’s kindle store. And also an Ars article about the recent takedown of filesharing site Megaupload, asking “if we can take down Megaupload under existing US law, why do we need SOPA?” (Ars is more diplomatic. My answer: because SOPA was never about domestic infringing sites, and thus was never a threat). Mark also had kind words for my earlier screed, and I wholeheartedly endorse his archived post about DRM and Intellectual Property – a must-read.

it’s SOPA day on the Internet

Google's doodle for SOPA Day
anyone else see any irony in this? Google.com, Wikipedia.org, WordPress.org, and hundreds of other websites large and small are going all-out against SOPA. Google has the logo censored by a black bar, and Wikipedia is actually offline. Lots of other sites and blogs are following their example. The idea is to symbolically register dissent against censorship by using self-censorship.

When you click the link from Google’s homepage, you are taken to a cool infographic which states:

Fighting online piracy is important. The most effective way to shut down pirate websites is through targeted legislation that cuts off their funding. There’s no need to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions of U.S. jobs.

I think I disagree with all three statements – first, fighting online piracy is NOT important. Piracy will always exist and will always stay a step ahead of measures to prevent it. In fact those measures ultimately end up facilitating casual piracy – look at Napster, deCSS, and now Bitorrent. All were solutions designed to evade piracy and which in the end ultimately made even more piracy possible.

Second, the LAST thing we need is “targeted legislation” that “shuts down funding” for websites of any type. Besides OBVIOUSLY being a First Amendment issue, such legislation would represent a precedent far more damaging and capable of leading to true censorship than SOPA (which is targeted at foreign websites and DNS).

Finally, while I agree we don’t want to force American blogs or websites to censor themselves, the implication is that SOPA would do this, which it does not do. SOPA is explicitly targeted at foreign websites. US-based websites (and this includes all .org and .net domains as well) are not affected by SOPA at all.

(Read the actual SOPA bill here – PDF)

I’m a big supporter of network neutrality (unless the network operators are willing to forgo their government subsidies), but what we have here is basically SOPA Theater (analogous to the Security Theater we have for airline travel).

Looks like the DNS provisions in SOPA are getting pulled, and the House is delaying action on the bill until February, so it’s gratifying to see that the activism had an effect. However, that activism would have been put to better use to educate people about why DRM is harmful, why piracy should be fought not with law but with smarter pro-consumer marketing by content owners (lowered prices, more options for digital distribution, removal of DRM, fair use, and ubiquitous time-shifting). Look at the ridiculous limitations on Hulu Plus – even if you’re a paid subscriber, some shows won’t air episodes until the week after, old episodes are not always available, some episodes can only be watched on the computer and are restricted from mobile devices. These are utterly arbitrary limitations on watching content that just drive people into the pirates’ arms.

All that priceless real estate on Google and Wikipedia could have been used to educate millions of people about these issues, and instead it is mostly wasted on a pointless battle that’s already won. The real battle is being lost.

Addendum: Color me skeptical of Google’s commitment to free speech, by the way. Here’s a question for them: If SOPA were to pass, would they comply with takedown requests that don’t meet the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA? (The argument is that SOPA would lower the bar for claiming infringement, but that’s vague in the bill). Would Google fight SOPA and be willing to go to court if their users were unfairly targeted, say for example by using a snippet of copyrighted music in a personal Youtube video? (the stark scenario that Tom’s Hardware painted last week)

UPDATE: vigorous discussion at Shamus’ place, but as one commentor puts it, full of “fashionable anti-Americanism” and chest-thumping about “freedom”.

Why SOPA might kill commenting, and is that such a bad thing?

UPDATE: I think the anti-SOPA blackouts at Google, Wikipedia etc are a gigantic wasted opportunity to educate people about DRM. And I’m skeptical of Google putting money where their mouth is.

I get it, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is bad because it doesn’t actually do anything to stop piracy. There are various screeds online, from left and right alike. It’s basically an article of faith that SOPA will “kill the internet”, but I’m not entirely convinced. The best article by far against SOPA and the most convincing argument is not by political sites but rather the techsphere, specifically Tom’s Hardware:

As an example, imagine a user posts a video clip to the Tom’s Community of a step-by-step guide on how to set up water cooling on an overclocked i7 CPU. Playing in the background behind the voiceover is “Derezzed” by Daft Punk. The studio representing Daft Punk could issue a complaint, without being required to notify us or request a take-down. Tom’s Hardware would be liable and prosecuted solely on a good faith assertion of the copyright owner, without notification, with the site operators subject to possible jail time for not preventing the video from being posted. In short order, the http://www.tomshardware.com/ domain in the United States would no longer resolve to our servers and visitors attempting to come to Tom’s Hardware would be redirected to a “This site under review for piracy/copyright violations” page.

To conform to these new restrictions would mean that Tom’s Hardware would have to switch to a review/approval process for any and all new posts to our forums and articles. Our community team would have to approve every single news comment, every new thread, and every new response before it went live and filter them for potentially infringing material. Even so, we would still possibly be under threat from violations not caught – a user posting a paragraph from “Unix for Dummies” as an example or a snippet of software news from another website in excess of a certain summary threshold. That’s just here on Tom’s. The effect on sites like YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and the rest of the internet would be devastating, and progress and innovation would grind to a halt under the cumbersome new restrictions.

I’m not sure if the scenario above would be as cut and dried as Tom’s states. In that example, the offending post would likely be flagged by the IP owner and that information would be given to Tom’s. If Tom’s wants to shut down their whole site, that’s their choice, but a simple targeted hiding of the offending post would probably suffice instead. We are living quite comfortably in an era where content violations are removed surgically from Youtube all the time and yet the Internet hasn’t collapsed.

But the broader issue as I see it is simply, are websites liable for their users? Which might be more broadly restated as, is there a right to comment? I think the answer to the former question is a yes and to the latter is a no.

Parislemon already closed his comment systems, Dave Winer uses Disqus, and Ars Technica’s top user forums are only available to paid users. These are all different mechanisms for signal-noise filtering. Killing off usercontent is only necessary when the userbase is essentially random, uncontrolled, hostile (the default state of most user spaces towards their hosts). But SOPA would kill the anonymous, seething mass of commentary and force everyone into more regulated userbase management. Why is that bad?

Arguably, increased liabilty from users might even lead to a rebirth of blogging – after all, if you have something to say,better to say it in a space you control rather than someone else’s. The first company to offer blog hosting services and security on par with wordpress.com but also allowing the user to retain complete control over the blog on par with a wordpress.org install is going to cause a new revolution. Blork, maybe?

Related: Dave Winer says SOPA will lead to a Disneyified web. We just got back from Disney World, and it’s called the Happiest Place on Earth for a reason – it’s tightly scripted, carefully managed, and meticulously designed to be that way (not unlike using Apple ecosystem products, but I digress…). It’s only we power users who are ever really unhappy – the vast bulk of the userbase will sit in line for 100 minutes to ride Peter Pan or accept limitations on bandwidth and copyright takedowns, as long as Hulu gets them their weekly fix of Gossip Girl.

In fact, in the longer term, having our capitalist overlords clamp down on the web might actually force some innovation beyond this aging platform. Leave the disneyweb to the world and lets have new parallel networks tailored for specific niches, built on new technologies and standards. Why do we force video to travel over http, for example? Or file sharing? Shadow internets already exist, such as the mobile web, Facebook, or the torrent community. Having one network to rule them all is a gigantic kludge.