Q: What does the proposed SOPA (“Stop Online Piracy Act”) legislation have in common with gun control?
A: Both would punish the innocent for the bad acts of a guilty few.
Under the guise of combating online copyright piracy, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation would have given the government unprecedented power to shut down a website for hosting “infringing material,” even for something as minor as an online comment from a 3rd-party linking to pirated content. Although the goal of protecting intellectual property rights is a legitimate one, the proposed SOPA law would not have solved that problem and it would have disrupted all manner of legitimate internet activity in the process. Steve Blank offered this analogy: “It’s as if someone shoplifts in your store, SOPA allows the government to shut down your store.”
But even though SOPA proponents in Congress appear to be backing down in the face of public pressure, the legislation is not yet dead but merely temporarily “shelved.” The Senate version, Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), is still very much alive. Furthermore, the U.S. government has repeatedly sought greater control over the internet, most notably with the proposed 2010 “internet kill switch” (“Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act”) which would have allowed it to shut down the internet at its discretion during “emergencies.”
Like all technologies, computers can be used for good or for evil purposes. But the fact that bad people can misuse a technology does not justify restricting the freedoms of honest users. As Cory Doctorow notes, we would never let the government restrict the use of wheels because bank robbers sometimes use wheeled vehicles to make their escape.
Gun control advocates have adopted similarly flawed logic for decades. In essence they argue, “Some people will do bad things with guns; hence we should restrict law-abiding Americans’ ability to own guns.” Over the years, they have enacted numerous local, state, or federal-level restrictions such as mandatory gun registration, bans of certain types of dangerous-looking rifles, and (in some localities) complete bans on handgun ownership.
Some gun control advocates have even proposed requiring that all new guns include technology that would allow only approved users to discharge the weapon, for instance, by requiring that a microchip in the gun recognize the owner’s fingerprint or a special ring on the owner’s finger. The government would also have the ability to override these chips remotely and render the gun unusable if it deemed necessary — i.e., the gun control version of the “kill switch.”
Internet control and gun control are not the only examples of government infringements on our liberties in an attempt to stop a few people from acting badly or irresponsibly. We must now show photo IDs to buy Sudafed at the drugstore because someone might use it in an illegal meth lab. Under ObamaCare, we must purchase government-approved health insurance because some people can’t or won’t pay their medical bills. Honest political advocacy groups must abide by campaign finance laws that mandate burdensome spending restrictions and reporting requirements, because some people might theoretically attempt to “buy influence” in an election.
To fight these bad laws, it’s not sufficient to fight merely the individual issues. We must also fight at the level of broader principle. In other words, we should not fight merely for internet freedom or firearms freedom or medical freedom, but for freedom as such. This means promoting the concept of limited government.
The proper function of government is to protect individual rights, such as our rights to free speech, property (including intellectual property rights), and contract. Only those who initiate physical force or fraud can violate our rights. A properly limited government thus protects our rights by protecting us from criminals who steal, murder, rape, and so on, as well as from foreign aggressors. But it should otherwise leave honest people alone to live peacefully.
If someone uses a computer to violate individual rights, say, by disseminating pirated material, then he should be punished. Admittedly, it may be sometimes difficult to enforce intellectual property rights against overseas copyright thieves. But in the process of seeking to stop the bad guys, the government should not violate the rights of innocent people engaging in legitimate internet activities. This is just a variation on the basic principle of Western jurisprudence, “Better let ten guilty men go free, rather than convict one innocent man.”
You do not protect honest online content producers from pirates by breaking the internet for the innocent. You do not protect innocent people from criminals by disarming the good guys. You do not stop the guilty by punishing the innocent. You do not protect individual rights by violating individual rights.
The successes of gun-right activists and of anti-SOPA activists also show how to create positive political changes. In both cases, academicians, think tanks, and grass-roots activists all worked hard to shift public opinion in the right direction. As a result, gun control is now “a movement without followers.” Similarly, most previously pro-SOPA politicians have backpedalled furiously, at least for now. When Americans demand their freedom, the politicians will follow. Let’s make sure these two positive examples are just the beginning — and not the end — of the fight for freedom in America.