Lets be honest for a second folks. If you were born in the mid 80s, you were a kid that saw the dawn of the internet age. You probably had precious little money for CDs, video games, and movies, and consequently, you’ve stolen a million dollars worth of free entertainment since 1997. But should that be enough to allow corporations to police and censor the internet, the last bastion of truly free mass expression left in the world?
In my life, I can think of two absurd peaks during the internet piracy free for all that has engulfed an entire generation. The first was the introduction of Napster, the free online music service that has never seen an equal. Sure, there were clunky imitators that tried to fill the hole left by Napster’s demise, like Kazaa and Limewire, and the kids of today probably use torrent sites to find free music, or gasp, even pay for music using iTunes. Still, nobody matched Napster at its height. Napster was ultra-fast, easy to use, and contained every song that was ever digitized on a computer, ever. It was as if every track, of every CD, sold in every CD store around the world was available at your fingertips. How was that possible? Because up until the moment of Napster’s creation, all anyone ever had was CDs, and nearly everybody started backing them up on computers when they realized how easily destroyable they were. It was a goldmine of music with no licensing restrictions, and no pesky fees that seem to be the rage these days. But Napster died a cruel death, thanks in large part to Metallica.
The next peak was a bit more personal for me. In 2003, I was a freshmen at Rutgers College. The campus was hooked up with pristine T3 ultra-fast broadband access in every dorm room. Some kids who lived in the river dorms set up a campus-only intranet service on a program called Direct Connect. You’d get the password from some guy on your floor, load up DC, log onto the Rutgers server, and sweet fancy Moses, you had access to the largest database of pirated shit you had ever seen. Every movie, every song, every video game, and every text book available, free to download at insanely fast speeds. Somehow the people running Direct Connect managed to have the latest video games free to download the week before they were released, and in less then ten minutes, you’d be playing it. It was unreal, and only lasted a year and a half before the Rutgers Direct Connect, and similar services offered at campuses around the country got shut down for good.
In today’s world, piracy is just as rampant, and requires little work to access. Bit torrent websites are rampant, and savvy web surfers know how to squeeze the sweet free golden nectar out of them. The only difference is running the risk of receiving a threatening legal letter from a movie studio or record company, and gulp, actually facing real consequences for getting caught. It’s a little risky, but millions and millions of people worldwide, ferociously addicted t0 their free ride, take the chance and continuously download illegal files constantly. But perhaps for not much longer, at least for citizens of the United States.
Today the US Congress is considering the Stop Online Piracy Bill, or SOPA for short, and if it is passed, has wide reaching implications for enjoying the internet as you know it. If the bill is passed, it would allow corporations that hold copyright, and law enforcement agencies, to block access to any website or search engine that allows access to such materials. On the surface, this is an easy to swallow bill to sell to Americans, and as a result enjoys bi-partisan support. The danger is, that if enacted, corporations would have the right to censor large swaths of the internet for perceived copyright infringement, potentially destroying thousands of legitimate e-commerce websites who will be left with little recourse. We aren’t just talking websites like yours truly and my sister site williesimpson.com, but massive internet mainstays like YouTube. Because someone posted an unauthorized video of the Rolling Stones singing “Satisfaction” on a TV show no one has ever heard of, and would otherwise have been forgotten to history, that gives some corporation the right to shut down the entire YouTube enterprise that everybody loves. Naturally, companies like Facebook, Google, and Firefox have come out strongly against the bill. So much of their profits are derived from people searching and sharing media freely, but the powerful lobbies of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America have lobbied hardcore for its passage.
The golden age of piracy has had many effects on the entertainment industry. First off, it rightfully slaughtered the record industry. It was a bloated, thieving, bottom line octopus, sucking quality and culture from an art form with its brain-dead quest to promote mainstream music that nobody in this ever fractured niche world could unite behind. It probably has wounded the movie companies too, as people go to movies less and buy less DVDs. Why bother when they can just wait a few months to download a pristine copy of the movie for free? Still, the problems affecting these two titans of entertainment should not allow them the right to lobby for legislation that gives them the power to black out large chunks of the internet due to a perceived violation of copyright law. In many cases, fair use with copyrights is a complex field of legality, and allowing for a powerful entity like the MPAA, who has unlimited legal funds, to shut down your business and potentially drag you into a costly legal battle on dubious grounds is just plain wrong. S.O.P.A. should be stopped, and if it is passed, every elected official who voted for it should be voted out come their next election. It’s a black and white question of free speech and corporate censorship that should not stand in the United States.