SOPA, PIPA and You

Today was a day of worldwide (online) protest against two bills making their way the the House (SOPA) and Senate (PIPA). Both bills aim to curtail online copyright infringement, principally from peer-to-peer file sharing sites and major aggregators of copyrighted content like (don’t go there). These sites make copyrighted material like movies, games, music and software available for free. They are also illegal.

Media companies like TimeWarner and Viacom and organizations like the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences support either SOPA or PIPA (or both), as do many other publishers, automakers, drug companies and other businesses whose intellectual property is being illegally distributed.

Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others oppose these bills on two principal grounds: 1) they say the bills amount to censorship and, 2) they believe that the expense of enforcing the provisions of the bill would be crippling.

Both sides generally agree that copyright infringement is a significant problem, but disagree on the remedy.

What we’re really witnessing here is an historic power shift. Power is moving away from media companies who once controlled not only the production but also the distribution of content, to tech companies who don’t produce original content, but instead help users find and share it. There is no good and evil in this fight, and if you believe that Google and Facebook oppose these bills for altruistic reasons you’re probably mistaken. Google and Facebook are giant ad networks. Companies like Viacom and Time Warner are also giant advertising networks—networks of billboards, bus shelters, TV networks, production studios, publishing companies, news outlets, etc. Media companies (who create content as well as distribute it) want to see their content protected in part because it represents revenue for them, and in part because it protects their means of distribution (i.e. they can distribute it and others can’t). The latter motivation is, I suspect, the stronger one.

Tech companies like Google and Facebook are in the business of aggregating content produced by others. Google doesn’t produce original content, they digitize the world’s information and help you find it. They don’t charge you for that service because they know they will get exponentially more users if they make it available for free. They make money by selling access to those millions of eyeballs in the form of ads.

Facebook neither creates nor aggregates content, it is simply a giant ad network that relies on its millions of users to generate free content on its website. Facebook has created a framework that enables its users to easily share their ideas, experiences, causes and businesses with other users. Instead of charging users to do this they ask them to agree to allow the company access their personal information which they then monetize in the form of highly targeted ads.

So, the real battle here is not about censorship or rights or freedom of expression. It’s a battle among some of the world’s biggest companies for the opportunity to market to people like you and me. It’s about media companies clinging to an outdated business model, and tech companies seeking to legitimize and institutionalize a new one.

As for the bills, both are deeply flawed. The companies who support them clearly have much to gain from their passage. Those who oppose them have much to lose. At the end of the day, I oppose both bills as I understand them, but what I oppose more is shallow caricature of this battle.

For a differing opinion try this TED talk, and check out AIGA’s official position.