Every so often, I can’t seem to fall asleep. Last night was one of those nights; I have a cold and my head hurt, my back hurt, my legs hurt, and trying to sniffle quietly is not especially effective. Finally at about 1am, I came downstairs so my partner could sleep without starting every time I “quietly “sniffled. When I can’t sleep, I browse the internet. Usually, I browse the Cheezburger sites because they are interesting enough to pass the time, without being so engaging as to keep me awake once I am ready to finally fall asleep with my face mashed into the keyboard. Lately though, even the most casual of internet sites has picked up the anto-SOPA mantra,  making it that much harder for me to disengage in the wee hours.

Sure, the Indiana legislature is back in session, with an impending selection of mind-numbing, facepalm-inducing, terrible, horrible proposals to ensue. “Right To Work” (AKA “Right-to-Work-for-Less”) is just one of many lining up to make my head explode in astonished fury this year. But first: SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act; it’s buddy is the Protect IP Act. Piracy in this case does not refer to pirates terrorizing the high seas (nor, unfortunately, to the amazingly ironic rescue of Iranian fishermen that included a helicopter from the USS Kidd, member of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, on the heels of Ahmadinejad’s warning to stay the hell out of the Persian Gulf). I assumed when I wrote the last sentence that this, the next sentence, would begin: “Instead, online piracy refers to…” followed by a legal definition. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a clear legal definition. Online piracy does not appear in the bill’s definitions section. I searched Google (possible thanks to SOPA’s current, non-yet-implemented status) for [“Online Piracy” legal definition]. That query worked for intellectual property, and I found this page with a definition (generally: property covered by copyright, patent, etc), examples relating to relevance, and numerous links. I did find a reference outlining piracy: defined under the law of nations, and requiring robbery at sea… I also found arguments relating to how poorly SOPA defines the crimes it seeks to combat, under Wikipedia’s “Arguments Against” section. I will uncomfortably assume that online piracy refers to stealing someone’s intellectual property in the cyber realms – a space so illusive as to necessitate reference to piracy rather than theft. Meanwhile, Congress continues to pirate porn.

Many of us are familiar with film and music industries’ efforts to prevent people from stealing their intellectual property. Those my age may have discovered Napster just in time to panic about getting sued over it, as comprehension of the differentiation between “sharing” and “theft” was just beginning to dawn. I won’t cover all the arguments that suggest the industries overestimate their losses, because other people do that better than I could, because it just makes intuitive sense that corporations would set their losses as high as possible in order to recoup as much as possible, because it also makes intuitive sense that greater losses mean they have more to lose and are thus more importance/relevance, but mostly because I promised I would clean up the disaster that winter vacation wrought upon our house and there just isn’t time in the day to do both those things. I will say that I am one of those people who, facing the decision to steal, buy, or go without, generally won’t steal because it is complicated, won’t buy because it is expensive, and so go without because I am too poor lazy busy to do otherwise. If, however, Google puts together an easily searchable section of free stuff like they did with out-of-copyright books, I’m all about it. Suffice it to say, no, I don’t believe the industry heavies are losing over $12 billion annually to intellectual property theft.

I do believe the internet is really, really important. I occasionally stop to remember that I only learned to send email when I was in college; my childhood was pre-internet. I even used floppy discs – and had to type in instructions to tell the computer to run the program on the disc! But I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose the trove of accessible information the internet represents. And not just information, but increasingly the platforms for social networking that internet applications offer – tools to disseminate and make use of the internet’s information. The revolutions in Africa and the Middle East are but one brilliant example of how humanity can flourish when it is able to communicate and access information. The horror of SOPA isn’t simply that it would limit first amendment rights to free speech, but that it would hamper the ability of regular people to access information and communicate with each other. No, of course, that isn’t SOPA’s goal, but when the majority of websites that host internet applications are in danger of being blocked by service providers because you posted an illegally copied video/image/piece of property on your profile, that is an easily anticipated outcome of SOPA. Have you ever looked inside your computer? Without those internet applications and the platforms that you use to share information, that’s what the internet looks like – coils and wires and metal. Oh, maybe a fan, too.

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist (because that’s a thing you can be, apparently) wrote an op-ed arguing that the internet is not a human right. (Cerf quibbles about human versus civil rights; I refer to basic rights because I am less concerned with what is legally recognized than I am with what people deserve.) The argument that it is up to technology creators to empower, support, and protect people on the internet totally, absolutely, unequivocally misses the point of the ongoing revolution-and-SOPA-inspired discourse. Cerf is thinking of ways to make the internet a better tool, which is fantastic. But the argument about the internet and human rights that should accompany any such discussion is that fundamental rights should be protected on the internet. If a government shuts down that resource to the detriment of people’s ability to come together and share information, that infringes on their ability to perform those acts (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc). Such rights are not simply ideas; people must be able to exercise or act out their rights freely, or they are for naught. Cerf asserts: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.” He misses the forest for the tree, even while transportation and freedom of movement remain vital elements of fundamental rights and freedoms. Access isn’t only about making something available, it also means not denying someone the ability to use the thing in question.  If someone denied you the ability to have a horse in that historical frame, it would have been tantamount to denying you the ability to make a living. Back to the internet: we should protect the tools and forums people employ to exercise their rights and freedoms as vital components to the rights and freedoms themselves. Take away those tools, and you remove access effectively diminish one’s ability to exercise their right, even if you do simultaneously pay lip service to supporting those rights.

Ultimately, the internet provides open forums and tools for people to gather, discuss, share, dissent, dissemble, and so forth. The ability to do so, to exercise those freedoms is more important than piracy or the entertainment industry’s ability to turn a buck. The government already fights “online piracy” – I’ve gotten nearly a dozen emails about ICE/Homeland Security’s success shutting down Ninja Video, seizing their domain names, and charging the operators. Presumably, then, SOPA escalates the ability to prosecute while broadening the range of who is responsible while increasing penalties. But it would do so at an unconscionable cost, by limiting the ability of the public to use the internet for legitimate and purposeful ends.

In case you had some need for even more links:

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedoms: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156619.htm

Stephen Colbert on SOPA: http://boingboing.net/2011/12/02/stephen-colbert-explains-sopa.html

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