Monday, January 23, 2012

Three Reasons Why I Stayed off the Anti-SOPA Bandwagon.

Being enrolled in a class whose entire focus is the current evolution of a digital society, it was not possible for me to avoid the SOPA/PIPA controversy. I was all but forced to develop an opinion on an issue that I would otherwise have left for the more bombastic crowd.

It would have been easy to accept the "facts" as they were presented:

"SOPA is censorship in open violation of the Bill of Rights! SOPA will break the internet! SOPA won't work!"

But I didn't like that.

I couldn't accept the fact that lawmakers would pass such an obviously nasty bill. I started actually looking into it, and the more I read about SOPA, the more I became aware that most of this anti-SOPA rhetoric felt like well-planned propaganda consisting of half-truths and exaggerations, fed out by the large groups who stand to lose the most from the bill and regurgitated by their faithful followers. The campaign was effective; both bills have been stopped in their tracks.

Now, before you assume that I supported SOPA, let me tell you now that I didn't. Nor did I strongly oppose it. I am not writing to explain the merits of the bill or to denounce it. However, it really bothered me that those in opposition to the bills invoked the effective sword of the word "censorship" (the c-word!), by means of misinformation, an equally heinous act. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, the Ministry of Truth was in charge of controlling information to the people; their means were not simply censorship, but rewriting documents to falsely inform the people. This is a few steps above what we have seen here, but if Orwell knew anything about what he was writing (and he did, having served in the military of the British Empire and being required to participate in the ongoing subjugation of the peoples of Southeast Asia) he knew that controlling a population requires making them think what they need to think to be on your side, whether or not it is true. In fact, it usually won't be true, and I don't support the shaky ethics of anyone who lies to protect their interests.

However, behind the screaming and shouting there was a bill on the table, and all the misleading talk about it from both sides didn't change its substance. I needed some way to respond to every person that asked me how I felt about it, so I decided to take a page from William James and company (some of the very few philosophers with whom I am actually familiar and agree) and approach the situation pragmatically. My pragmatic decision: don't worry about taking a side. I have three reasons why:

1. The outcome was fairly sure.
I wasn't sure what to expect to happen during the early stages of the SOPA debate, but when the whole "blackout" rolled around, it was clear. Most politicians try to avoid political suicide, which is the likely fate of any politician stalwart enough to continue supporting the bill. It was monumental that the internet was used in such a central way in order to protest, and I had no doubt then that SOPA was done. Why did this contribute to my decision? First, had I chosen to support the bill, my voice would have been lost in an anti-SOPA cacophony. Had I instead chosen to oppose the bill, my voice would have only joined the noise and been equally unheard. You might call that fatalistic; you might say that it goes against the American mantra that "every vote counts." However, I respond by saying that I don't really care whether my vote counts in this instance (more on that below), and that uncertain and ill-educated votes ought not to count.

2. "Life will find a way."
Ian Malcolm's prophetic statement about dinosaurs applies here as well. Simply put, I never expected SOPA to have a substantial effect in the first place. Build a wall, they'll break it down, jump over it, dig under it, or just wait for a power outage (just like the T-Rex). Would the internet be substantially different if SOPA were passed? I suspect not. Most of the sites I visit will be unaffected, and if one is I'll just find some other site to use or some way to do whatever it is I need to do without using the internet.

3. How bad could it get?
Let us extrapolate the arguments of anti-SOPAists ad absurdum. The internet is going to break! Every search engine has been shut down! I can't blog without being censored! Big deal. People have lived for millennia without the internet. You can't go to a library for information and reading material? You can't go to the video store for a movie? Heaven forbid that I be reduced to planning out my week in *gasp* a planner! The internet is an entirely non-vital resource. It's a luxury. Furthermore, it can have negative effects on the individual. For example, take internet addiction, something I blogged about a few days ago. You may also enjoy this post from another member of my class, mentioning among other things the negative effects of social networking. Now, admittedly, I use the internet liberally. I even demonstrate some of the tendencies of a compulsive user. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I think it would be refreshing to disconnect. Some things would be challenging, but only because I've let the internet atrophy my offline competence.

So why take a side? I'm just not that invested in the issue either way, and I'm frankly a little surprised at how many people think they are.


  1. SOPA would have ended the company I work for, and so I care a great deal about it.

    1. Naturally, I expected that there are some people who have genuine reasons to worry about it. For your sake, I'm glad that the outcome was what it was. Who do you work for, out of curiosity?