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The Web on Strike

January 18, 2012

Wordpress.com's English-language homepage today: the text in each redacted black rectangle reads "CENSORED"

Websites as big and significant as Wikipedia and Wordpress have got behind the campaign to stage a kind of mass walkout on the internet today, to protest at America's proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation (a useful primer can be found here). I find myself in a curious position on this.

As someone in a so-called "creative industry" who is sick and tired of having to fight to hang on to rights in my work in the face both of corporate bullying by companies that want to own my work to more easily and completely exploit it, and the disciples of 'Free' who don't believe I should be able to earn a living purely from writing, my inclination is usually to side with strengthening of existing copyright law, not watering it down. I'm also ambivalent about Wikipedia, not least for the way its belief in democratic production creates opportunity for deliberate or accidental innacuracies to become widespread "truths", and also because I firmly believe that anyone who wants to publish something should accept the responsibilities that go with the territory - yet in the name of the same freedom of expression being talked about today, sites relying on user-generated content (not just bottom-up projects like Wikipedia but corporate-owned, profit-making ventures too) seem to be able to weasel out of their duty to publish responsibly by dint of arguing that too many people are writing and publishing too much material on their networks for them to possibly accept liability for any of it. That feels like a text-book example of wanting to have your cake and eat it - a tendency observed in many other settings, but never one I find myself having sympathy with. 

There's also the issue of this being American legislation - and while I fully appreciate how its effects will be global, I can't quite see what I as a Brit can do about it. I don't have a Congressman to write to, I don't have a vote that can be swayed, so why would they listen to me? So I can't pretend it's an issue I've looked at in much detail. But SOPA and PIPA look like bad laws framed by people who either don't fully understand the implications, or who believe, as the current president appears to with regard to the provisions included in the National Defense Authorisation Act, that it's a good idea to have a law on the statutes that no sane person would ever use, and then promise not to use it rather than have it struck out of the legislation before it is passed. That's the part that rings the loudest bells for me, because this is the sort of logic trotted out by all those corporations who want journalists to sign contracts handing over all conceivable rights forever, and accepting unlimited and life-long legal risk for work that may be fine when submitted but have libels inserted during the editing process. "That's what it says, but that's not how we'll use it" is the language of the confindence trickster. So I wish good luck to the anti-SOPA protesters, and won't put anything else up on my site today - for whatever little that may be worth.





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