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Susan Landau Headshot

It's All in How You View It

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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The newspaper stories about the Obama administration's opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act portray the battle over the bills as a fight between Hollywood and the technology companies. That is rather missing the point. While these bills would have a negative impact on innovation, I suspect that the issues that motivated the administration were assuring cybersecurity and preventing limitations on Internet free speech -- both of which these bills do (see, for example, threats to cybersecurity and risks to free speech ).

The White House decision is not so much about Internet technology folks trumping Hollywood. (Indeed you'll see that while many technology companies opposed SOPA and Protect IP, there were plenty of others on the sidelines. Perhaps these companies were quietly letting legislators know they thought the bills were bad ideas -- but if so, they certainly were not trumpeting their opposition loudly.) The White House decision is about the increasingly important role the Internet plays in our daily lives -- and the need to ensure a secure network.

Last spring the Obama administration issued its International Strategy for Cyberspace, which said, "To realize fully the benefits that networked technology promises the world, these systems must function reliably and securely. People must have confidence that data will travel to its destination without disruption. Assuring the free flow of information, the security and privacy of data, and the integrity of the interconnected networks themselves are all essential to American and global economic prosperity, security, and the promotion of universal rights." Read that again. "People must have confidence that data will travel to its destination without disruption." "Assuring the free flow of information... and the integrity of our interconnected networks themselves are all essential to American and global economic prosperity, security, and the promotion of universal rights."

Those who view SOPA and Protect IP as a battle between Hollywood and Internet technologists, and view round one as going to the Silicon Valley guys are missing the big picture. The public Internet is now firmly embedded in our daily lives. The network's integrity and robustness, free flow of information, and security are fundamentally national-security issues -- not commercial ones (though they are those too). Trying to disrupt Internet infrastructure to protect copyrighted movies and media is to misunderstand the fundamental role the new communications medium plays in society and national security. It is to miss the importance of the role of the Internet in the Arab Spring, the importance of non-governmental sources in providing the U.S. government with information about what is really happening around the world, the importance of free flow of information to U.S. strategic interests.

This is not to say that Hollywood and the media companies don't have legitimate concerns; they do. But there are many ways to see the Internet. One way -- and here Hollywood and the Chinese government share viewpoints -- is as a technology for illegally sharing unlicensed content. Another, which recognizes commercial interests as well as political and national-security ones, is the Internet as a "source of 'infinite' airtime," providing commerce, politics, and national security a new rich way to conduct business. The New Yorker details how YouTube is seeking to market itself as a source of "YouTV," streaming video, professionally produced, and targeted to its audience in the way that Internet content can be.

"Infinite airtime" has many benefits, including providing the movie industry a way out of its current dilemma. Since government is unlikely to support weakening Internet security or frustrating access to information, it might be time for a shift of view for the media industry. That would have benefits all around, not least of all for Hollywood. Solving this problem may require some shifts of view. But any copyright effort that undermines Internet security or free flow of information is unlikely to get governmental support. A solution, after all, will depend on how you view the Internet.

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