Thursday, January 19, 2012

and we're back

Well done, Internets!

In solidarity with everybody doing the #j18 protests against SOPA and PIPA, I blacked out this blog and my academic web page; I'd be really surprised if this directly caused anybody to call any legislators. My email to my family on the topic was probably more effective: one of my uncles wrote back, saying he'd signed a petition. So: rad!

The protests seem to have been incredibly loud and fairly effective. At this point, a congressperson would have to be incredibly dense to not get the sense that the public outcry against censoring the Internet in the US is enormous. A number of Republicans, including some former co-sponsors, have taken the opportunity to switch to opposing the bills, which seems politically expedient. (article on DailyKos about this. Kos wonders why Democrats seem to be willing to be left holding the bag...)

But even if we manage to get SOPA and PIPA scrapped, we're still left with two fundamental problems.

(1) The MPAA and RIAA can try to break the Internet again later, because they'll still own a significant number of congresspeople. Say if OPEN picks up steam and gets passed, will that be enough for them? The music and movie industries have fought tooth-and-nail against new technologies for decades; what's to stop them from taking another run against the Internet, or against whatever we have in the future? How can we reduce their money and influence, over time? As an angry Internet activist, getting all of your family and friends to boycott all media produced by major labels and studios seems extraordinarily hard. I must admit: I totally bought an Andrew W.K. CD not too long ago, and we have Netflix at our house. Should we cancel it?

(2) More fundamentally: large companies can own congresspeople. How can we take control of Congress, as citizens? Note that I didn't say "take back Congress" -- there's been a disconcerting connection between money and power for our entire history. If you haven't read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, I highly recommend it.

People much more insightful and more dedicated than me have written quite a lot about this, but I suspect the solution really is campaign finance reform. Simply taking away the incentives to make awful decisions, while encouraging good behavior that at least some people like would probably result in a Congress that... makes fewer awful decisions and has a double-digit approval rating. I think term limits would also be useful, so that congresspeople don't have to worry about re-election so often (although, how to incentivize good behavior in the last term? ...), and some sort of rules to keep former congresspersons from becoming lobbyists, so we can prevent the Chris Dodd situation from happening again. He still goes by "Senator Dodd", but this year he quit the senate to become the head of the MPAA.

Oh, also: Super PACs, and the Citizens United decision.

However we move forward: today, a large number of people who had never tried to contact their elected representatives, now have. The more often we do it, the lower the psychological barrier! There are even phone apps: (android, iphone). I use the Android one all the time; it's extremely convenient.

Right. Anyway. Stop reading this blog, and go read what Lawrence Lessig has to say. I'll get back to doing some computational linguistics. Maybe you should too!