It’s not often that I encounter an idea that fundamentally shifts my thinking or view of the world but I came across one not too long ago: the Dunning-Kruger effect. The essence of the idea is that people below a certain level of understanding in something tend to over-estimate how well they understand it and those who are well versed in something tend to underestimate how well they understand it. In short, dumb people are too dumb to know that they’re dumb. That one idea fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world and not for the negative. More I understood where to draw the line on certain issues and gained a whole swath of insight into the reasons why people do certain things that make no sense to me.
Since late yesterday many websites have been going dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that have managed to resurrect themselves since my post on it a couple days ago. I personally haven’t done anything because I know the vast majority of my readers are already informed on the matter and I’m not one to engage in me-too like behaviour just for the sake of it (just like LifeHacker who’ve copped some flak over it). However whilst the protests are proving to be a rather effective means of getting attention of this issue (it got air play here in Australia) I get the feeling that a lot of them, especially Wikipedia’s one, are running up against the Dunning-Kruger effect.
What proof do I have of this? The existence of Twitter accounts like this one showcasing those who don’t understand why Wikipedia is down. Forgetting for the moment that the Wikipedia blackout page explains exactly why this is happening and that it’s still available via their mobile site or Google cache it seems that the second something changes for these people they’re are simply unable to understand what has happened. It’s a known phenomena for us IT people: change the way something is done and most users won’t be able to figure out how to work around it. They are simply lacking the required level of knowledge to understand that they don’t have enough knowledge to approach the problem rationally, and react to it with vulgarities and mindless commentary.
For these people then the protests that Wikipedia et. al. are going through are thus meaningless for them as should they lack the required level of knowledge to understand why an online resource has gone away it’s unlikely they’d grasp the fundamental reasons of why SOPA is a bad thing. To them Wikipedia going away would simply be a loss of a valuable tool without reason (hence the reactions) or they’d wrongly attribute the blame somewhere else. They don’t understand that there is something they can do to prevent such things happening in the future, both for working around the blackout and for preventing such things happening again.
Does this mean that these shouldn’t have engaged in these protests? Far from it. I’d argue, based on completely anecdotal evidence, that the vast majority of people will be able to see the reasons why Wikipedia is gone and will probably just wait it out and not do much more. However there are those rational thinkers who were not privy to the evils of SOPA and PIPA prior to these sites going dark and they will more than likely join the cause afterwards. We’re already well past critical mass here so any more supporters simply adds additional momentum and hopefully that will be enough to kill these ridiculous bills before they go any further.
For over 100 years rights holders have resisted any changes to their business models brought about by changes in technology. From a business perspective its hard to blame them, I mean who wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure you could keep making money, but history has shown that no matter how hard they fight it they will eventually lose out. Realistically the world has moved on and instead of attempting to keep the status quo rights holders should be looking for ways to exploit these new technologies to their advantage, not ignore them or try to legislate them away. Indeed if other industries followed suit you’d have laws preventing you from developing automated transport to save the buggy whip industry.
The copyright system that the USA employs is a great example of where legislation can go too far at the request of an industry failing to embrace change. At its inception the copyrights were much like patents: time limited exclusivity deals that enabled a creator to profit from their endeavours for a set period of time after which they would enter the public domain. This meant that as time went on there would be an ever growing collection of public knowledge that would benefit everyone and not just those who held the patent. However unlike the patent system copyrights in the USA have seen massive reform in the past, enough so that works that would have come into the public domain will probably never do so.
Thankfully, whilst the copyright system might be the product of an arms race between innovators and rights holders, that hasn’t stop innovation in the areas where the two meet. Most of this can be traced back to provisions made in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that granted safe harbour to any site that relied on user generated content. In essence it put the burden of work on the rights holders themselves, requiring them to notify a site about infringing works. The site was then fully protected from legal action should they comply with the request, even if they restore the offending material after receiving a counter claim from the alleged offender. Many sites rely on this safe harbour in order to continue running on the web because the reverse, them policing copyright themselves, is both technically challenging and resource intensive.
However just like all the technologies and provisions that have been made for the rights holder industry previously those safe harbour provisions, which enabled many of the world’s top websites to flourish, are seen as a threat to their business models. Rights holders associations have said that the DMCA as it stands right now is too lenient and have lobbied for changes that would better support their business. This has come in the form of 2 recent bills that have dropped in both houses: the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the house of reps. Both of these bills have attracted heavy criticism from the technology and investment sectors and it’s easy to see why.
At their core the bills are essentially the same. Both of them look to strengthen the powers that rights holders have in pursuing copyright infringers whilst at the same time weakening the safe harbour provisions that were created under the DMCA. Additionally many of the mechanisms described in the bill are at odds with the way that the Internet is designed to work, breaking many of the ideals that were set out in order to ensure ubiquitous access. There’s also many civil liberty issues at stake here and whilst bill supporters have assured everyone that they don’t impact on them in any way the wording of the bill is vague enough to support both interpretations.
The main issue I and many others take with these bills is the shifting of the burden of proof (and thus responsibility) away from the rights holders and onto the web site owners. The changes SOPA advocates mean that web site administrators will be responsible for identifying copyrighted material and then removing it from their website, lest they fall prey to having their domain seized. Whilst this more than likely won’t be the downfall of the sites that made their fame inside the safe harbours of the DMCA it would have a chilling effect on start-ups looking to innovate in an area that would have anything to do with a rights holder group. Indeed it would be the sites that have limited resources that would be hit the hardest as patrolling for copyright infringement isn’t a fully automated process yet and the burden could be enough to drive them under.
It’s also evident that SOPA was put together rather haphazardly when some of the most known copyrights infringement sites, like The Pirate Bay, are actually immune to it. Indeed many sites that rights holders complain about aren’t covered by SOPA (just by the current laws which, from what I can tell, means they’re not going anywhere) and thus the bill will have little impact on their activities.
You might be wondering why I, an Australian who’s only ever been to the USA once, would care about something like SOPA. Disregarding for the moment the principle argument and the fact that I don’t want to see the USA technology sector die (I could justify my point easily with either) the unfortunate reality is that Australia has a rather liberal free trade agreement with the USA. What this means is that not only do we trade with them free of tariffs and duties but we’re also obliged to comply with their laws which affect trade. SOPA is one such bill and should it pass it’s highly likely that we’d be compelled to either implement a similar law ourselves or simply enforce theirs. Don’t think that would happen? A leaked letter from the American ambassador to Spain warned them that not passing a SOPA like bill would see them put on a trade blacklist effectively ending trade between the two countries. This is just another reason as to why everyone, not just Americans, should oppose SOPA in its current form.
The worst part of all of this is the potential for my site, the one I’ve been blogging on for over 3 years, to come under fire. I link to a whole bunch of different places and simply doing so could open me up to domain seizure, even if it wasn’t me putting the link there. I already have limited time to spend on here and the additional task of playing copyright police would surely have an impact on how often I could post and comment. I don’t want to stop writing and I don’t want people to stop commenting but SOPA has the very real potential to make both those activities untenable.
So what can be done about SOPA and its potential chilling effects on our Internet ecosystem? For starters if you’re an American citizen write your representative and tell them to oppose SOPA. If you’re not then the best you can do is help to raise awareness of this issue, as whilst it’s a big issue in the tech circles, even some of the most versed political pundits were unaware of SOPA’s existence until recently. Past that we just have to hope we’ve made enough of an impression on the USA congress critters so that the bill doesn’t pass, at least in its current form. The hard work of many people has made this a very public issue, but only continued pressure will make it so it won’t damage the Internet and the industries it now supports.
EDIT: It appears that the strong opposition has caused the American congress to shelve SOPA indefinitely. Count that as a win for sanity.