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.

5 thoughts on “Why SOPA might kill commenting, and is that such a bad thing?”

  1. SOPA, its the end of the internet, NO more downloads of games like Crysis (totaly free) and NO more music free like software Ares, NO more of free SO like windows (isnt free but you can DOWNLOAD it) NO more porn free, NO MORE INTERNET.

    Anonymous is the LAW
    corporaciones que manejan personas, abajo ley SOPA

  2. “But SOPA would kill the anonymous, seething mass of commentary and force everyone into more regulated userbase management. Why is that bad?”

    I’m not sure if it would, but even if it did, why is that good? For gigantic sites that get tons of traffic and write about controversial subjects, it makes sense to close or severely limit interaction and they have the freedom to do so. Even then, there are sites that regularly garner quality 100+ comment threads with no real restriction on who can contribute (see Eric S. Raymond’s blog)

    But for sites like my two blogs, putting up extra barriers to comment is a bad thing. I don’t get many comments, but what I do get tends to be quality and valued.

    Due to spam attacks, I recently had to force commenters to authenticate in some way in order to comment – and I can see a reduction in comments (I can see in my metrics that people go to comment, then abandon at the sign in page). If either of my sites were mega-popular and got hundreds of comments per day, that would be fine. But if people aren’t even willing to clear that hurdle, I don’t see them creating new blogs just to respond to people.

    Ultimately, SOPA hurts a lot more than it helps (though I don’t really grant the premise that it would help anything), and if you really want to improve discourse on the internet, SOPA is a pretty intrusive and destructive way of doing so.

  3. dont get me wrong. I value comments here at Haibane also for exactly teh same reason. But thats because our sites are small ponds, easily policed and monitored. A blog like ESRs may attract a niche commentariat ofhigh quality but again thats a function of the limited scope, not a good representation of comment quality in general. Keep ut small or keep it focused, or keep it paid: high quality. But wide open, mass market? invariably, garbage. And in the new era of copyright monitoring, more of a liability.

    if you got hundreds of comments a day, you’d start to get problems too, wth respect to quality. You are already implementing anti-spam measures and authentication, as do I to an extent. But these solutions do *not* scale. At a certain level, you have to have wide open comments as vetting is impossible. Or no comments at all.

  4. Totally agree about scaling, but I would appreciate the freedom to run my site as I see fit. If I was getting hundreds of comments a day and I wanted to wade through them all wielding Scalzi’s Mallet of Loving Correction (Scalzi’s Whatever is another site that gets a ton of comments of reasonable quality), I could do that without having to get approval from the frickin government. Of course, I’m not really willing to do that, but you get the point. It should be my choice.

    I guess my point is that if I wanted to fix spam and low quality comments, there are other ways of doing so without resorting to the scorched earth policy of SOPA (which has negative impacts far beyond internet commenting) or, quite frankly, any sort of government intervention. In fact, I’m already doing so (and researching better ways to do so).

  5. I don’t think SOPA would interfere with your ability to run your site (or me, mine) though. Of course you could self-moderate comments without SOPA, but the point here isnt to force you to maintain a quality of debate, its to prevent copyright violations by making it easy for copyright owers to issue a takedown.

    Actually, since SOPA is primarily directed at foreign websites, SOPA is largely irrelevant to how you or I conduct our sites anyway. Our sites fall under existing US law and we can already be shut down if a commentor were to abuse the system. Tom’s Hardware’s argument wasn’t entirely honest in that regard.

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