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18 Jan 2012 / mttlg

Words from beyond the grave: Michael Crichton on SOPA

I considered blacking my web sites out today, but since I was the only person likely to visit them and I don’t need to be convinced that SOPA is a very bad idea, it seemed rather pointless. Instead, I thought it would be more productive to summarize why SOPA and legislation like it is a bad idea. The argument boils down to three main points:

1. Overly broad powers to block (censor) content are almost certain to be abused by government and/or corporate entities.

2. Altering the technical underpinnings of the Internet for political reasons without understanding how they work is likely to cause major problems for the flow of data, regardless of its perceived legitimacy. This, however, is likely to be routed around, leading to the third point:

3. Any effort to stop piracy with legislated technical measures is likely to be rendered ineffective by pirates almost instantly and will only inconvenience legitimate users (see also: Macrovision, CSS, etc.).

On the first point, Congress assures us that these laws would only be used against nasty pirates overseas who are beyond the reach of our laws. That’s nice, but Congress isn’t in the business of enforcing the law or determining a law’s applicability, so any assurances they make are empty gestures. The devil, when not fiddling around in Georgia, is in the details, which seem to change hourly. Considering that no amount of wording can do much to avoid collateral damage and the entities with an interest in passing these laws are motivated only by money, abuse in the form of shutting down any competition without sufficient financial and/or legal resources is a very real possibility. Even when sufficient resources to put up a fight aren’t an issue, the effect of these new powers could do away with public forums for the free distribution of user-generated content to large audiences. This is what is known in the business as a chilling effect.

On the second point, Congress’s reluctance to even listen to people who understand the technical structure of the Internet is a telling example of how much they care about maintaining the free flow of ideas. Considering how little those in Congress know or care to know about technical matters, the refusal to consult with experts before taking action is about as troubling as a construction crew that starts digging before checking on where the gas lines are. I sure as hell wouldn’t want them mucking around in my neighborhood, much less the entire public information infrastructure.

On the third point, I defer to someone more knowledgeable on the subject of the media industry. He is the best-selling author of over a dozen immensely popular novels over a span of 40 years. Most of these novels have been made into major motion pictures directed by people as notable as Steven Spielberg. He also wrote several original screenplays and wrote for and/or created several television series, including one that ran for over 300 episodes and launched the careers of many actors, most notably George Clooney. To say that he was familiar with the publishing, film, and television industries is a colossal understatement.

But that’s not all. His novels tended to focus on the unintended effects of technology, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he was well-versed in technology as well and had experience with computers dating back to the 1960s. This sounds like someone who might have some interesting thoughts about SOPA and legislation like it, wouldn’t you agree? If you read the title, you might have guessed that I’m talking about Michael Crichton.

Unfortunately, Crichton died in 2008, long before SOPA was first drafted. If his novels are any indication, he would probably argue that even the most perfectly crafted technical measures to stop piracy will fail spectacularly once people are entered into the equation. Ultimately, it was always the people that mattered in his works, no matter how advanced the technology was. One bit of insight we can get comes from his 1983 book Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers. Prophetically, Crichton includes a chapter on copyright, arguing that the real hurdle in overcoming piracy was social, not technical:

“Predictably, groups affected by this new copying technology have sought to preserve copyright protection in some semblance of its traditional form. Authors and motion picture producers have asked the courts to outlaw copying technology, or to tax it at the point of sale. Computer program manufacturers have devised elaborate techniques to prevent copying of disks, although these efforts have merely created a parallel industry devoted to breaking each copy-protection technique. Any computer-wise kid will tell you flatly, ‘You can copy anything.’

Whatever the courts decide in the short term, it will eventually be obvious that there is no way to regulate widespread copying in an electronic information society. The technology can’t be stopped; consumer preference for videotape over laser disks means, bluntly, that people want to copy. They are beginning to think of it as an ordinary right. A tax on copying technology at some early point will never be equitable. The problem will only get worse.” (Electronic Life p46)

This was written almost 20 years ago. Copy-protection techniques have continued undeterred, gaining a legal standing through the DMCA that made buggy-whip manufacturers envious (or would have if there were any left). Despite this, every protection scheme has been broken and every work of any importance has been made freely available to anyone who wants it. And the same tools keep getting brought out to fight this piracy, with the result never in doubt. So we get more technical hurdles, more invasive laws, and more of an incentive to seek out less frustrating entertainment alternatives. Humanity has learned nothing in 20 years.

Crichton goes on to give his solution to the problem, which of course is based on all parties involved accepting reality. This, predictably, has not happened. Now, it could be argued that Crichton hadn’t yet seen the Internet and the possibilities for copying that it presented. It could be argued that he was already wealthy and therefore was not terribly inconvenienced by the copying of his works (though this was long before Jurassic Park, ER, or anything that most people remember him for). None of this changes the fact that technical and legislative measures are doomed to failure when faced with people who want to copy. This is as true today as it was 20 years ago, if not more so.

“The problem will only get worse.” It has gotten worse, but not in the way Crichton envisioned. As was all too common in his novels, Crichton thought that advances in technology would be the driving force behind changes that would help humanity move forward, while the reality failed to live up to expectations. Instead, human greed has twisted this technology around to keep it from reaching its potential so long as there is money to be made, regardless of how it harms others in the process. Life is imitating art long after the artist has departed.

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