SOPA, Guns, and Freedom

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.”