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Parts of the internet will go black tomorrow. From Wikipedia and Reddit to the Cheezburger network and Major League Gaming, numerous highly-trafficked web properties say they'll shut down to protest the SOPA legislation that would make the internet far less free in the name of fighting piracy.

Even Google is going to be making a statement using its homepage.

The blackouts are going on despite the fact that SOPA is effectively dead -- for the time being.

Facing increasingly visible criticism and anger over SOPA's heavy-handed approach to protecting Big Content, it became more and more difficult for members of Congress to stand by the legislation.

Clearly recognizing how unpopular SOPA was, U.S. President Barack Obama finally came out and said he would not support it.

SOPA was flawed in a seemingly countless number of ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, it was based on the flawed premise that piracy is a problem that is so big it requires a significant restructuring of the internet as we know it.

As Tim O'Reilly observed, "There's no question in my mind that piracy exists, that people around the world are enjoying creative content without paying for it, and even that some criminals are profiting by redistributing it. But is there actual economic harm?"

He goes on:

In my experience at O'Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content.

Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O'Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others are buying content from us, many of them in countries that we were never able to do business with when our products were not available in digital form.

Julian Sanchez adds a broader perspective in a must-read piece, explaining in some detail why the numbers Big Content throws around regarding the economic costs of piracy cannot be legitimate by any stretch of the imagination.

These numbers are, for lack of a better word, completely "bogus".

Of course, none of this means that piracy should be ignored. Intellectual property is important, and it's in our interest to have an honest discussion about IP rights.

But tearing down the internet, treating all individuals as presumptive criminals and turning government into the police force for Hollywood is not the way to protect intellectual property. Fortunately, with SOPA shelved, we can all breathe a sign of relief.

The big question now: for how long?

Big Content is not going to back down, and government bureaucrats aren't going to abandon their lust for more power. Greater regulation of the internet is something both groups will push for, even if it doesn't come in the form of SOPA.

Knowing this, tomorrow's blackouts are a good thing. They serve as a reminder that there's still a war here, even if one battle has been won.

Unfortunately, future battles may not be so easy. Ironically, the biggest challenge to winning these battles may prove to be the tech community itself. That's because while it has done an admirable job fighting SOPA, prominent members of it are at the same time calling for more government regulation.

Google integrating its own social network into the SERPs? We can't have that! Letting the private companies which build the infrastructure of the internet decide how to manage that infrastructure? We need network neutrality laws to stop that!

Of course, we don't.

If the tech community doesn't stop inviting government to effectively police the internet, and beg it to grant itself the legal powers to do so, there probably won't be another SOPA to protest.

Instead, those who want to restrict the internet and control the free flow of information will do so by crafting insidious legislation some of SOPA's biggest opponents support.

Patricio Robles

Published 17 January, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dave

I didn't realise that you're against net neutrality as well (by the way, the link is broken). How much are they paying you? :P

Are there any circumstances in which you would support legislation to help protect aspects of the internet from predation by large companies, or are you a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian? I'm not sure why you'd argue against net neutrality otherwise.

As an economist, it seems to me that suggesting that we don't need any government regulation is naive at best and dangerous at worst. The internet is an inherently collectivist construct and largely relies on an anti-capitalist model to continue functioning in the way we're used to.

The simplest way to make money from the internet isn't to innovate, it's to restrict it and charge for access, like traditional media outlets do. Government intervention like enforced network neutrality is needed in order to continue its provision as a public good (this is basic stuff here - the free market inherently underprovides public goods due to mismatch of private and public benefits/costs). Arguing against that is essentially arguing for companies to have the ability to cut out bits of the internet that they disapprove of or (more likely) are unable to monetise effectively. Which is like saying that companies who construct roads should have the ability to cut off towns who don't use them enough or that few people want to drive to.

over 4 years ago

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CVi

The Bill is not dead at all, it's dormant.

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Dave,

The internet seems to be working fine for me. It seems to be working fine for you too, so it's not clear how getting the government more involved on the internet will promote the status quo you're "used to."

The scary implications of SOPA highlight the fact government is the only entity truly powerful enough to threaten the internet's freedom. When was the last time a private company's actions sparked such a widespread protest and blackouts of some of the internet's most popular websites?

The reality is that government is the only entity clueless and power-hungry enough to actually eliminate that freedom. Are private companies always perfect operators? Of course not, but to survive and thrive, they have no incentive to destroy the very market their profitability relies on. Government's incentives are not aligned with the market in any meaningful fashion.

At the end of the day, it boils down to who you trust most. I think it far preferable for consumers to regulate the internet by voting with their wallets how they use the internet (and which services they patronize) than by asking government to grant itself the power to use force to control how the internet works and how businesses and individuals use it.

As for your comment that "The internet is an inherently collectivist construct and largely relies on an anti-capitalist model to continue functioning in the way we're used to", I don't know if we're talking about the same internet.

Most of the internet infrastructure we use on a daily basis is privately owned, and the internet flourished because there were private companies making it useful. From content to ecommerce to social networking, I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of the online services the average person uses on a daily basis were built and are operated by private enterprises.

Frankly, I don't know how anyone could call one of the greatest wealth creation engines the world has ever seen "anti-capitalist." If anything, the internet is one of the most powerful examples of the benefits of free enterprise.

Finally, to answer your question ("Are there any circumstances in which you would support legislation to help protect aspects of the internet from predation by large companies"):

1. In most developed nations, laws preventing fraud and misrepresentation are plentiful. If you're talking about true predation, where a company intentionally deceives you to steal your property, there is already sufficient law to work with.

2. No company -- large or small -- can force you to use its services. Again, you have the liberty to vote with your wallet, and you do every day. Now, you might argue that in the case of ISPs, this isn't necessarily true, hence the perceived need for network neutrality. But then I'd have to point out that in most countries, the telecommunications industry is typically already one of the most highly-regulated, leading to the question: if you're unhappy with ISP monopolies and oligopolies, shouldn't you blame the regulation that supports their existence?

over 4 years ago

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Dave

We're clearly not talking about the same internet. The majority of the internet is built on the back of academic and military networks, not corporate ones. If governments were as incompetent as you're making them out to be, and if we'd followed "the market", there would be no internet as we know it.

The belief that it was "built by private enterprise" is not only demonstrably wrong but also symptomatic of the pervasive blindness of professionals in the corporate sectors of the web that they represent the be-all and end-all of the internet. The web isn't a series of servers containing content; it's primarily a communications medium.

And that's the reason why you can't pretend that the market will solve the issue. Leaving aside the spurious idea that "voting with wallets" will lead to an optimal solution (it won't) or even a desirable solution (quite possibly not), the supposed "profitability" of the internet won't provide sufficient incentive to private business because the vast majority of the internet isn't profitable or even monetisable in a traditional sense.

"I don't know how anyone could call one of the greatest wealth creation engines the world has ever seen "anti-capitalist." If anything, the internet is one of the most powerful examples of the benefits of free enterprise."

The internet is the single most powerful example not of free enterprise but of collective and collaborative action built on the principles of a non-commercial economic system. The backbone of the internet is built on free and open software, and the majority of activity on the internet comes from people doing work for free. The fact that the internet generates wealth (in the economic sense, the fact that people can make money out of it is a byproduct) despite the vast majority of it working outside of the capitalist market paradigm is an excellent demonstration of that.

"If you're unhappy with ISP monopolies and oligopolies, shouldn't you blame the regulation that supports their existence?"

Actually I'd blame the lack of regulation that supports their markets' current structures, and the continued lobbying from the telecoms sector which allows them to make sure that they aren't effectively regulated. Even a basic understanding of economics will tell you that concentrated markets generally lead to market failure which requires intervention to correct.

In summary, whilst it may be very easy to stick your head in the sand and pretend that the market will cure all ills, it's fundamentally the case that markets cause failures which need to be corrected, and the telecoms industry is no different. Lack of network neutrality is a prime example of misaligned incentives leading to a suboptimal solution. The internet is bigger than telecommunications companies and failure to recognise this is what threatens the internet the most.

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Dave,

I don't know how anyone can say that the internet is built on the "principles of a non-commercial economic system" and that "the internet won't provide sufficient incentive to private business because the vast majority of the internet isn't profitable or even monetisable in a traditional sense." On an annual basis, the internet is a platform for hundreds of billions of dollars of commerce globally. Companies like Google, PayPal, Facebook and Tencent -- which didn't even exist a decade and a half ago -- have created billions of dollars of wealth, and despite the apparent lack of monetization opportunities to incentivize private enterprise (as you see it), companies big and small are spending heavily on their internet presences and investors pour billions of dollars into young technology companies every year, producing startups that create new markets and drive innovation.

Clearly, we're not using the same internet. I simply hope you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine.

Cheers.

over 4 years ago

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Dave

I really don't mind if you want to be provincial. I'm sure it's nice never leaving the corporate sectors of the web; everything's shiny and you can make lots of money there. Just remember that just because you don't use other parts of the web doesn't mean they don't exist. Stopping legislation like net neutrality genuinely harms areas of the web you don't personally use, and your only real objections to the principle of the regulation are philosophical in nature. Please, take a moment to think about the consequences of what you're advocating for people other than yourself.

over 4 years ago

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