Could SOPA give us back a decentralized Internet?

December 19th, 2011

I don't think SOPA will fly, ultimately. It benefits content companies at the expense of technology companies which by now seem to have deeper pockets. Technology companies will find a way to undo SOPA if it passes.

But suppose it passes and is consistently enforced. This threatens sites "enabling or facilitating copyright infringement" – what are those?

Standalone personal sites probably aren't threatened. You know what you publish, and if you publish copyrighted content, you can easily remove it. Gmail probably isn't threatened because data isn't publicly available. SOPA does threaten Wikipedia, because you're supposed to not link to "infringing sites" (which could be anything) – but it probably doesn't threaten them through the content actually on the site, since they're very careful not to use copyrighted content.

Which sites are threatened the most? Facebook, YouTube, blogging and social networking sites. Plenty of copyrighted content gets uploaded to these. If SOPA is trimmed to exclude links to "infringing sites", then it is mostly "social" sites which are targeted.

Are these sites a good development in the Internet world? It's definitely not how the Internet was supposed to look like. Instead of many individual sites, we now have a few huge sites keeping most of the published data, together with much personal information, with very little obligations to users. "They trust me – dumb fucks", as the Facebook CEO put it.

Wouldn't it be great if instead of big social sites, we had big hosting companies and many independent individual sites? Wouldn't it be great if the many independent sites were all using public protocols to exchange data – using the Internet network and not the Facebook network? Wouldn't it be great if no "social engineer" could oversee our communication?

Couldn't SOPA do just that – make it unaffordable to manage a proprietary network like Facebook on top of the Internet, giving us back a decentralized Internet? Facebook convinced hundreds of millions of users that it's fun to be on the Internet, read stuff, write stuff. Couldn't SOPA then force people out of Facebook and bring them to the actual Internet?

Hosting companies that make publishing easy – on your site, under your domain, with data under your full control and responsibility – could use the opportunity. It's well past time that running an actual site is feasible on this fabulous Internet network. With all these proprietary networks on top, what normal person runs a site today, or even knows what it means? Wouldn't it be great if they finally started?

And yeah, I realize it's not going to be like that. Facebook will manage to shoot this legislation down. If it doesn't, then it'll manage to work around its enforcement. And if it doesn't, any site with a link to any other site is probably threatened – definitely Wikipedia, Reddit, HN...

So yeah, it's going to be much worse. But I can dream, can't I?

(And couldn't you think of a way to distribute the hosting of user-generated contents – like news links or Wikipedia articles – and give a unified view at the client side? Then one couldn't target "the Wikipedia site" – there wouldn't be any – but only a specific portion. Wouldn't it be better for users, in some ways? )

1. Matthew ColemanDec 19, 2011

Those are some very good points. Unfortunately there's also a more general point to make about the SOPA legislation, which include things like 1) the ineptitude of Congress in defining technology laws, 2) the ease at which the internet can be attacked federally and censored, 3) the privatization of digital copyright law. It's feasible that SOPA is a stepping stone to much scarier reforms and methods of control. At right now least we have a choice of whether or not to use Facebook and aren't forced to log in to some centralized commercial internet sphere to do or see anything.

2. Yossi KreininDec 19, 2011

@Matthew: I agree completely in that it's very much preferable that it doesn't pass irrespectively of its immediate consequences, I was just thinking what those consequences could be if it did.

3. Alecco LoccoDec 19, 2011

MPAA (Hollywood), RIAA (Music) and Business Software Alliance (Adobe/MS/Apple) will sue everyone.

Big corporations with armies of lawyers will settle privately for close to nothing.

But small fish will face a mass extinction or a huge fee.

4. Yossi KreininDec 19, 2011

It sounds plausible, on the other hand, with patents big corporations learned that, given a law that threatens their business, they can't expect their army of lawyers to bring them a settlement for close to nothing (say, Apple and Google have a patent war costing quite a lot). There are also "small fish" making their money off suing (analogously to patent trolls) that won't settle for close to nothing, either.

So I think threatened technical companies will feel very much threatened until the legislation is wholly defeated.

5. DanDec 20, 2011

The most surprising thing to me is that people outside the United States have such interest in a piece of legislation that should, in theory, only affect people in the United States. Globalization, indeed.

6. Yossi KreininDec 20, 2011

Well, when US raised the tariffs on imports following the stock market crash of 1929, it certainly affected plenty of people outside the US, and that was before "globalization" became a common term to describe this sort of thing...

7. DanDec 23, 2011

There's a petition on the White House site to veto SOPA. Let's kill this thing! This is bad for more than just facebook. This is bad for everyone except big media.!/petition/veto-sopa-bill-and-any-other-future-bills-threaten-diminish-free-flow-information/g3W1BscR

8. Yossi KreininDec 23, 2011

I agree that it's bad for everyone, ultimately. I'm not a US citizen though, so I don't think I can help with the petition. Regardless, I'm not sure it was a good idea to have the petition link to an image with a "fucking terrorist" in it – I'd guess that something blander could get more signatures and treated more seriously by the US administration.

9. Decentralized BorgFeb 29, 2012

There is a decentralized social network on the horizon...

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