Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deflating the SOPA Quackery: Facts, Figures and Fun Stuff

"Why is it that when Republicans and Democrats need to solve the budget and the deficit, there’s deadlock, but when Hollywood lobbyists pay them $94 million dollars to write legislation, people from both sides of the aisle line up to co-sponsor it?“ — Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian on CNBC. 

Politics. There is an element of absurdity that often emerges from the process of crafting laws that, regardless of your personal political values, you just want to through your hands in the air. It's like, in making the legal soup, when you through in ingredients like money, lobbying, special interests, the need for some sort of consensus, and maybe a little more money, you get this rich sort of political umami -- this taste that says, "we're getting ready to serve you a load of crap and tell you how good it tastes and how good it is for you." It happens a lot when they start to legislate around technology -- you get "a series of tubes" crafting laws controlling the infrastructure platform that many modern businesses depend upon.

Often, this load of crap and it's associated political umami is developed in the long, slow simmer of a PR echo chamber, stating and restating a misrepresented position as though it were fact. One reason why this works so well is that few of us will actually do the deep dive needed to question those raw ingredients making up the Spin soup. Eventually, the misrepresentations take on a life of their own.

In the midst of a day of SOPA protest on the web, I thought I would share some interesting reading that I've come across recently. First, here are a couple of great posts from Julian Sanchez on the underlying BS being used to justify the arguments.

First is a recent post, How Copyright Industies Con Congress, where he talks about the illusory accounting used to calculate the "cost of online piracy". Linked in that post is an older post, 750,000 lost jobs? The dodgy digits behind the war on piracy, that he published in 2008 on Ars Technica as earlier legislation on this same topic made its way through the congressional kitchen.

Continuing on that theme, here's a great post, Forget SOPA, Hollywood Already Had a Field Day with the Justice System by Andrew Bridges over on Pando Daily. As per the post, the author is an attorney over at Fenwick & West who "has handled many important high-stakes and cutting-edge cases for tech, Internet, and consumer-focused industries, starting with the defense of the first MP3 player (the Diamond Rio PMP 300), which the RIAA tried to ban as a “piracy” device."

The really interesting thing about the Bridges post is not just the difference in scale in terms of damages being applied for "piracy" as opposed to other, similar crimes, it's the way that he talks about the use of terminology by the motion picture industry. Here's an excerpt:
It’s a great example of the way Hollywood chooses its words very carefully in constructing its propaganda wars. The old-fashioned and accurate word is “infringement,” but that word doesn’t create the visceral responses that “theft” does. So the bills refer almost exclusively to “theft.”

The trigger for this was Hollywood’s frustration several years ago that “file sharing” didn’t sound bad.  After all, we learned in kindergarten that “sharing” is a good thing.  The motion picture industry’s lead spokesperson, Jack Valenti, hated the term. He liked to compare a chocolate cake to files on the Internet: if you share some of your cake, you’re not supposed to still have all your cake, but when you share a file you still have the file. Thus, he argued, it’s not “sharing” at all. Of course, his inability to distinguish between chocolate cake and information — which is what music stored as bits really is – resembles Hollywood’s profound misunderstanding of the Internet today. One can indeed share information while keeping it.

Over the last ten years I have watched Hollywood loyalists, undoubtedly responding to some coordinated industry messaging directive, start talking exclusively about “theft” when they refer to infringement. One can tell who has signed on as a Hollywood partisan in the current debates by seeing who now uses the loaded term “theft” instead of the accurate term “infringement.” The facts that the bills overflow with references to “theft,” and that many government officials have changed their vocabularies to use the new, industrially correct language, reveal a lot about Hollywood’s capture of government... more
It's a great read -- check it out.

Politics and the Psychology of Marketing Spin
As you read the posts that I've linked to here, you'll find some classic examples of how the interests behind these issues use marketing techniques to drive opinion. From the selective use of vocabulary to color the issue to anchoring numbers that they use to inflate estimations of the scale of the problem, it's hard to imagine the average "constituent" not being pushed and manipulated by these techniques. This is how "no big deal" gets transformed into a crisis.

But imagine the politicians behind this legislation. What would you bet that some of them have infringed upon a copyright? Maybe used an image that they didn't have permission to? Maybe used some music that they didn't pay for? How many do you think have relatives that might have downloaded some content that they didn't pay for? Maybe it's just that the stuff that comes through their tube is all free.

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