A Taste of the Coming Dark Ages

The Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.
– John Gilmore, 1993

It’s now just after midnight on the East Coast, and Websites around the Internet are returning from a self-imposed blackout in protest of two nominally anti-piracy bills which are currently in both houses of Congress.  It appears to have been a successful protest which has caused a number of supporters to re-think their opinion on the bills.  The White House had previously voiced concern over the bills as well.  It’s a welcome trend against two bills which are very poorly crafted.

The protest also placed the subject first and foremost in the awareness of netizens, such that there is no need to conduct any substantive review of the points of the debate here; however, there are more things which must be borne in mind by those who are heeding the suggestions of the tech companies which stand in opposition to the bills.

The first is to remember that while Google, Facebook, and the other giants of the Internet stand behind the people in opposition to this bill, it is not for altruistic reasons.  They are (rightfully) afraid that they may be sued, perhaps out of existence, because of the provisions of the bill which would require U.S. companies to police content which their users and clients are linking to from overseas (the so-called “rogue sites” mentioned by sponsors like the otherwise intelligent and generally true to principles Sen. Patrick Leahy).  This is unlikely to happen to the large firms, which is why companies like GoDaddy were in favor of this bill until overwhelming protests by their customer base forced them to reconsider; however, it would still result in substantial cash outlays and would threaten some of the smaller players in the industry itself.  (As companies which work on a shared resource – the Internet – many computer and technical firms have a more developed sense of cooperation and fair play in business practices.)

Thus, they are against, in this case.  But these same firms would think nothing of bills which would rob you of your privacy or your right to software that is free from excessive monitoring or spying…so long as they were able to benefit from them.  “Enhanced market research” which would track your movements around the Internet and report back to their companies would be just fine with them.

This segues into the second point: the Congressional showdown over these bills is not some sort of movie serial clash between the mustachioed villains, come to censor your Internet, nyah-hah-hah, and the white-hatted heroes of free speech.  This is the proxy battle between those Congresscreatures who are bought by Hollywood, and those who are bought by Silicon Valley.  That the citizenry have become engaged is more a testimony to the business of the latter group; they’re communications companies, after all.  The entertainment industry unwisely picked its battle with those who have the metaphorical bucket of ink.

This of course means that the Congress is bought and paid for – not in a cool-thing-to-say-at-the-lunch-counter way,  that makes the truck driver next to you murmur, “Damn straight,” and lift his coffee to his lips for a disgusted-but-resigned pull, but in a very real sense, and it appears to be disproportionate to the Democratic Party.  The aforementioned Senator Leahy is one unfortunate illustrative example; the much more egregious one is the incredibly slimy Christopher Dodd, a former Presidential candidate who is now the head guy for Hollywood’s version of the Ministry of Truth.  It is worth mentioning that this is business as usual for the “Democratic” Party, as similar actions in other industries and on other subjects have shown, though it is by no means restricted to them.  It’s worth saying that there’s a simple, three-word explanation for why prostitution is still illegal: Congress hates competition.

Finally, as we are, for the most part, the “99%” in this matter and many others, not just in terms of our financial situations, I would urge everyone, as a technical professional of some ability, to act in order to protect your free access to information and to protect your privacy in viewing and using that information.  Professor and author on cooperative telecommunications Clay Shirky gave a talk this month on the bills and what citizens may do about them, and it was excellent and informative – but I would suggest further action is necessary.  Along the same lines as a Christian would “trust in God, but lock [their] car”, we must treat ourselves as denizens of China, Syria, or any other oppressive regime now.  SOPA may or may not pass, but it will not be the final blow in their attempt to pummel us back into being mindless, ignorant, passive consumers of their information, and when they return, the government will not merely be complicit, as they are now, but will likely aid and abet the effort.

Educate yourself as to what is at stake.  Use technology and subterfuge to circumvent their censorship and protect your privacy.  Know who is with you, and understand who is against you.

It’s going to get a lot darker from here on out.  Start lighting your own candle.

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