Though I’m sure most of my readers will be familiar with the recent events in the United States legislature, I’m going to spend a brief period discussing it. Skip this part?
In the past month or so, the United States Congress introduced and debated a pair of bills called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” (PIPA).
Though differently named, they had much the same purpose: To leverage legislative power to increase the stretch of copyright law into the barest workings of the Internet. Essentially, the laws provided for methods by which a company or individual who owned the copyright on material that had been infringed upon by an Internet site could contact the proper authorities, and those authorities would immediately shut down that website. They did this by redirecting traffic to that domain name to a different IP address. These provisions alone promised to break the Internet irreparably. But the further outrages were that no due process was carried out, that the supporters of the bill had received a large amount of money from various film and recording industry lobbyists, and finally that even if you had only linked to a site that had infringing material, you could also be shot down.
These two bills, while having many supporters in Congress, engulfed the Internet in protests by users and site administrators alike. Entire websites took down their content for the day. Other sites “redacted” user content for the day. Many sites showed solidarity for weeks by redacting part of their logos. This was a great day in the history of the Internet, and definitely shows that we have become an entity that is capable of defending itself.
Now, on to the aftermath.
So, now we are past these two awful bills, SOPA and PIPA.
Though they were great threats to our digital freedom, and seems to have been defeated, I have to draw everyone’s attention to one very simple fact about SOPA/PIPA: These bills were not isolated incidents, and they aren’t going to be the last. There are threats to our freedom cropping up in ACTA, in various other copyright legislation, and many other non-governmental places.
But these attacks on our freedom need not go unnoticed, nor do we need to let them happen. We have the power to make a huge difference in our own digital lives, and I’m coming back into the online community to try and impress upon all of you how to do it.
First, since we just spent a lot of time trying to undo a pair of bills that threatened our freedom, let’s try and eradicate the cause. The two really big causes, in this case, are the MPAA (the movie industry) and the RIAA (the recording industry). If we want to do anything to fight against these organizations, we need to seriously look for alternatives. Y Combinator and others have been calling people to arms to try and “replace Hollywood”, but I’m pretty sure that those people are already out there. There are hundreds of people making short films in their basements for absolutely no pay. Try browsing Archive.org for a while, and tell me that there isn’t something there for you. Then check out the Blender Foundation’s collection of animated shorts! I haven’t heard much talk about the RIAA’s part in this fiasco, but their replacement is already around, too: go to Jamendo and find out that there are some really awesome artists that use Creative Commons to protect their listeners. My favorites right now are Brad Sucks, Tenpenny Joke, and Josh Woodward.
Now, I’ve talked about the major proponents of SOPA/PIPA. But there is an irony in the whole situation that no-one seems to be seeing. While this was going on, and big companies were helping with the protest and censoring their own pages, nobody seemed to realize that those same big companies were guilty of much the same wrongs. Google, Tumblr, Minecraft, and TwitPic? None of these companies affords any freedom to their users! Sure, they let you use their products in limited capacity, but are you able to run a local instance of Tumblr? Can you modify Gmail? Can you even post anything you want on TwitPic? And Minecraft, of course, charges you to use the secret code and never truly lets you in to see it.
Basically what I’m saying is, most of the same people who talk big about digital freedom when it comes to SOPA/PIPA are abysmal at preserving those freedoms when it comes to simple freedoms: The freedom to use (in any way you want), the freedom to copy and distribute copies, the freedom to read and modify the source, and the freedom to redistribute modified copies. Those freedoms, in my life, are just as important as the integrity of DNS.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about digital freedom in a lot of different formats, and if I’ve learned anything it’s this: No one wants to make a drastic change, especially not in this particular area. So my advice is this: Check out the links above. Head over to the Free Software Directory and find something cool that replaces a piece of software you’re using. If you read “Minecraft” earlier and were offended, check out Minetest instead. Don’t replace your entire system with Gentoo just yet–that takes a lot of expertise. But maybe it’s time to use Firefox instead of Chrome? Maybe download LibreOffice to finally replace Microsoft Office? Maybe even brave the switch to Clementine to get away from iTunes! Little, tiny steps like this can really make a big difference in the landscape, and certainly in your perception of free software as being inaccessible or difficult to use.
Another great thing you can do to help in the fight for digital freedom is to join the Free Software Foundation. They’re having a membership drive right now, and they could really use the money. They’ll put it towards making cool software, educating people about it, and pushing for adoption of free formats.
And finally, Internet, I implore you to make one more small step towards freedom: Tell your friends. I don’t care if that translates into pageviews for me (no ads here), but I do care that you spread the word. Start a conversation one day about why everyone uses Office. Ask your graphic designer friends if they’ve tried the GIMP or Inkscape recently. Try not to get too into it–I’ve gone down that road, it’s not pretty–but definitely start to ask people you know about their choices, and if they could make better ones going forward.
Thank you, and go freely.