The SOPA-PIPA Saga - Freedom of Speech vs. Net Neutrality

Many - like me - watched with great interest the defeat of SOPA and PIPA last week. The unpopular bills were defeated due in no small part to a well-coordinated high-profile protest by Internet companies like Google and Wikipedia. Millions flocked to sign and send petitions to denounce the bills.The rapid mobilization of public opinion surprised many, prompting many to pronounce in a new era of Internet-based mobilization.

While the defeat of SOPA-PIPA has been cast as a victory of the people, I find it troubling that many citizens have come to simplify the issues as a fight for "Internet Freedom." Whatever we feel about SOPA-PIPA, we should not lose sight that most of these Internet companies were interested parties in controversy. These companies are the target of wide-sweeping regulations that would have obligated them to do much of the dirty work to line the pockets of IP owners with little or no upside for their own bottom lines per se.

The truth is that the Internet will always be regulated by someone - if not the government then the Internet companies themselves. The Internet does not become "free" just because we do not regulate it by law.

Consider ISPs like Comcast, which had in the past been found guilt of discriminating content for private gain. It's only recently that ISPs are told not to discriminate service based on content (e.g., Comcast should not block or slow down voip traffic to force customers to buy Comcast phone service). Unfortunately, even with FCC's new Net Neutrality rules - which passed strictly along party lines and is being challenged in court - many still fear the law provides little new meaningful protection.

Even Google - that vaunted defender of Freedom - is not beyond rebuke. Google – the self-proclaimed defender of transparency, openness, and objectivity on the Internet – is under investigation in the EU for manipulating search result for commercial gain and has in the court of law been observed to “vehemently assert and defend its right to manually and subjectively promote, penalise, or omit whatever it chooses."

Consider also the case of the Wikileaks shutdown. Within days of the White House pronouncing the Wikileaks publication illegal, several payment sites – including PayPal, Mastercard and Visa – suspended WikiLeaks’s accounts, cutting off Wikileaks primary means offunding. Amazon’s web hosting service dropped its hosting of Wikileaks mirror sites. EveryDNS.net took the drastic step of taking suspending the wikileaks.org domain. Thus a shadow network of Internet stakeholders had the power to shut down Wikileaks according to its own rules and sense of norms – even when the government was still unclear on whether the information should be censored. This - according to Assange, founder of Wikileaks - was nothing less than a "privatisation of state censorship."

I find it ironic that so many Americans would so quickly come to trust for-profit companies - companies that must under the law hold the interests of its shareholders above all else - over their democratically-elected government to regulate the Internet.

What makes the fear of government involvement here even more puzzling is that the government already regulates the Internet. In the name of national security, for example, the SHIELD ACT introduced by Lieberman would:

amend a section of the Espionage Act that already forbids publishing classified information on U.S. cryptographic secrets or overseas communications intelligence — i.e., wiretapping. The bill would extend that prohibition to information on HUMINT, human intelligence, making it a crime to publish information “concerning the identity of a classified source or informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United States,” or “concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government” if such publication is prejudicial to U.S. interests.

With respect to copyright, the government already has arm-twisted ISPs and other Internet stakeholders to allow content holders to crackdown on copyright violators. Among things ISPs have already agreed to do include taking mitigation efforts such as reducing internet speeds and redirecting a subscriber’s service to an “educational” landing page for customers accused of copyright infringement. All this was done behind backdoor, in secret, without judicial review. Rather than relying on behind-the-door power negotiations between government, content holders and Internet companies, would it not be better to formalize this sort of arrangement in law?

People who care about the democratic process should worry about the effectiveness by which companies like Google and Wikipedia appear to have leveraged their reputation as unbiased authorities of information to shape and mold public opinions. If they have the will and means to mobilize opinion, what is not to prevent them from discriminating their content in line with their corporate interests?

Chris Dodd of the Motion Picture Association of America - no doubt in self-serving fashion - accused the high-profile tactics as an "abuse of power" and a " dangerous and troubling development." But is there something to the proposition that companies that have come to be seen as stewards of the Internet owe some sort of public duty to be neutral when it comes to issues in which they are directly embroiled?

While I cheer on the defeat of SOPA-PIPA (copyright is really broken; many also consider SOPA-PIPA to be truly evil), I also have no false hopes that my interests on the Net can be best guaranteed by the likes of Google or Wikipedia or Facebook.

For now, I am celebrating RELIEF - not FREEDOM .

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