Powers of Ten Perspective on SOPA

The IBM Powers of Ten video is a classic: as the stolid narrator ticks off powers of ten, the camera pulls back or zooms in and a new layer of complexity is revealed. We need a Powers of Ten video for SOPA.

At the initial scale, Hollywood lobbyists convinced Congress to push a bill through that would give Hollywood a measure of control over Internet sites by facilitating DNS takedowns, placing liability on site operators, and generally placing restrictions on Internet businesses designed to benefit existing content distributors. The depressingly smooth passage of the bill meant serious measures were called for: the blackout day. On that day, tens of millions of people became alerted to the consequences of SOPA and wrote to their representatives. SOPA has stalled, possibly died. And there was rejoicing.

But step out a power of ten and you see SOPA was just the latest in a series of legislative manipulations by existing media companies to benefit their coffers. Whether it’s extending the term of copyright, criminalizing the circumvention of DRM, or trying to ban repeat-downloaders from the Internet, these media companies are powerful and use their power to extend their profits. Sometimes they even exploit their access to the user to perpetuate their cause, for example by putting unskippable pre-roll anti-piracy messages on every legitimately-purchased DVD. There’s no indication that a victory over SOPA means there won’t be a SOPA 2.0 in six months time.

Step back further and you see that Internet companies have set themselves up as new distribution channels while the old distribution companies were napping. Amazon can take an author’s book and put it in consumers hands without ever involving a publisher, and Apple are following suit. Amazon, Apple, and Google all distribute movies. The legacy distribution companies are owned by the content production companies, and their “save our business” message muddles whether it’s content production or legacy distribution that’s threatened by these new Internet companies. Congress put their legislative thumb on the scales in a business dispute: old money vs new money, incumbent rent extractor vs upstart.

Step back further and you see that Congress thumbs the scales all the time. Between the money that can be earned from corporations and unions as a lobbyist after leaving Congress, and the money needed to run a campaign to be elected in the first place, there are a lot of reasons for Congressional representatives to be receptive to advances from monied interests. This means their legislative attention is not on the good of society or even the majority, but for the good of those willing to spend money to buy it. This is the big picture view, the root of the problem.

Congress is a flea pit. We can crack the fleas one at a time as they bite us, or we can clean house. I see widespread jubilation on the success of the SOPA skirmish, but only one or two people thinking and talking about how we win the war. We win when we end this stream of Internet-breaking bills, and that will only happen when Congressional election campaigns are no longer paid for by monied interests. An independent Congress will still listen to business and unions, it just won’t have to roll over and beg when money whistles.

This is, obviously, a bigger problem to solve. Lessig has called it a “generational” problem: pernicious money will take 30 years to eradicate, so we may end up cleaning up the country for our children. The size of the change doesn’t make it impossible. It’s a strategy problem, like every other: spend time and money at every power of ten, more where it’s urgent and important, investing in R&D where a way forward isn’t immediately obvious.

What does it mean to attack it at every power of ten? Simply:

  1. Fight SOPA when it’s urgent. Well done, immediate crisis is over!
  2. Prepare to fight SOPA 2.0 and TPP and ACTA 2.0 and …. Until we fix Congress, there’ll be more attempts to provide welfare for legacy distributors. Blackouts won’t work. Get the holdouts (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.) to join in a sustainable coalition to oppose future fuckery. Obama’s election was made possible by incredible tools for mobilizing voters; we need similarly evolved tools. Invest a little now so we don’t have a cold start when the next bad bill comes along.
  3. Buy online. Be the change you want to see: use your wallet to feed the companies you want to succeed, don’t spend with the ones who want to break your Internet. Low-priority but ongoing.
  4. Buy and read Lessig’s new book Republic, Lost. He was ahead of the curve when he alerted us to problems with copyright law, and he’s been ahead of the curve in his identification of corruption as an issue. This is research.
  5. Join rootstrikers or any other group working to eliminate the root cause of Internet-breaking legislation: corruption. At election time, give them money instead of making campaign donations.
  6. Invent the next thing we can all do which will bring us closer to change.

You’ll notice I don’t have “get Internet giants to lobby Congress” on my list. I’m sure they’ll do that already, but I don’t believe you can fight this fire with fire. They may need to lobby tactically, but strategically you fight fire by taking away its fuel or oxygen and that means taking obligation-creating campaign donations away from Congress.

If we don’t do this, we’ll keep scratching and crushing the fleas one at a time until we’re miserable from all the bites. We need to zoom out a few powers of ten and clean house to solve the underlying problem.