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Why SOPA Scares the You-Know-What Out of Me


For the past few weeks, and especially over the past few days, everyone is talking about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), new legislation in the United States that seeks to punish people for posting pirated content. I didn’t pay much attention at first. The name sounds nice, after all. I don’t support illegal downloading, and I certainly don’t want people illegally distributing the content I create. So my first impression, when I started seeing people tweeting about it, was that people were mad that they’d have to pay for things they should have been buying in the first place.

Today, I had coffee with Thursday Bram. She was in town (I live in the Washington, D.C. area) to hear Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, speak to the Young Entrepreneur Council – and he was in town first and foremost to speak out against SOPA. So I thought I better come home and actually read about the legislation, to see what the big deal was.

Holy cannoli. I almost had to change my pants. This video does a good job, in my opinion, of outlining the legislation and its problems:


Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I’m not a lawyer and I normally don’t get super political. So if you believe I’m thinking about this the wrong way or don’t correctly understand what I’ve read about SOPA, please leave a comment telling me that. This is just how I’m interpreting things, and it is giving me an upset stomach, so I’d love to be wrong.

If passed, this legislation will scare people from sharing any link or user-created content at all because if the government (and those controlling the government though lobbyists) doesn’t like it, you can be shut down. I’m reminded of futuristic dystopian works of fiction like V for Vendetta and 1984, where government controls the message at all times. That might sound a little dramatic, but those type of imagined futures don’t happen overnight. They happen bit by bit, starting with legislation that seems like it’s meant to protect us (or so we’re led to believe). Legislation like SOPA.

Basically, what SOPA does is create a way for content creators (anyone from a large movie studio to an individual artist) to fight piracy, which is a good thing. But it also creates tons of loopholes for content creators to shut down anything they don’t like or understand that they feel infringes on their rights. We’re trusting people – people who have a lot of money at stake – to ignore these loopholes. It’s like putting a big chocolate chip cookie and some carrots in front of a three-year-old and saying, “Honey, we trust you to only eat the carrots while I’m in the other room.” Yeah right.

The loopholes in this legislation will get abused. That’s a guarantee. They’re too tempting.

And not just that, but frankly, a lot of the people in charge of the government and even businesses don’t really use the Internet. They have interns who answer their emails and support staff who update their websites. We’re putting our faith to make good decisions about our industry in the hands of people who have no clue what this industry is about. That’s terrifying.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is supposed to protect us. Its “safe harbor” clauses give websites the chance to fix problems before being sued. Websites who make an effort to discourage copyright shenanigans don’t have to worry about getting being blacklisted. Essentially, if you try to do the right thing, you’re given the benefit of the doubt.

SOPA doesn’t give you a second chance. I’m not advocating that a piracy site should get one, but I am advocating that a social sharing site, including forums, blogs that allow comments, social media networks, bookmarking sites, and so forth be given the chance to rectify any infringement problems, rather than just being shut down because a reader/user/member/etc. posted something that a content creator doesn’t like. This is the kind of government blacklisting we’re seeing in places like China. That scares me.

Worse yet is the vast amount of gray area when it comes to infringement. SOPA will squash creativity like song mash-ups, spoofs, covers by amateurs, and more. Even stuff that is technically allowed by law could be at risk because people will be scared. Today, they’re taking down videos of someone covering a pop song. Tomorrow, they’re showing up at the small-town bar we’re you’re singing karaoke. Like I said, complete government control doesn’t happen overnight. Baby steps lead us down that path, a path where free speech is no longer allowed as we know it.

And to take things a step further…what about opinion pieces like I’m writing right now? It’s a leap, but if SOPA passes, could someone in the future read this post and categorize it as content that promotes piracy just because I disagree with an anti-piracy bill? Okay, yes, that’s quite a leap, but when writing this, I’ve been very careful to say multiple times that I don’t support piracy, just in case. Baby steps.

Let me not forget to mention how ridiculous the penalties are for someone suspected of promoting piracy in any way. A content creator can completely cut you off financially in as little as five days, which is not enough time for most people to defend themselves. You could even go to jail.

That’s right – jail. Up to five years. Because I posted a link to a YouTube video that uses background music without permission. Because that seems much more reasonable than just asking that the video be removed. Cue the black hood and handcuffs as I’m being dragged away by men in suits and sunglasses.

He's probably not a *real* pirate, right? Let's send him to jail just in case.

SOPA means that anyone who owns a website or creates any kind of online profile has to walk on eggshells. Part of the problem is that this legislation is so open to interpretation, that even if you aren’t doing anything wrong but just look like you might be doing something wrong, you could be at risk. Guilty until proven innocent is not okay in my book. There are a lot of innocent people out there who could get unjustly accused.

This legislation could even affect what you send via email, from what I understand. That requires a heck of a lot more email monitoring than I’m comfortable with. I’m not naive enough to think that something I send via email has no chance of getting read by anyone else, but I am un-paranoid-y (that’s a technical term because I can’t think of a better word) enough to think that right now, people don’t have a reason to care about my emails, so they probably don’t get read by “the man.” Under SOPA, email providers will have to care, and if you’re sending something that looks like an illegal link, the black hoods will come out again.

Up until now, I’ve been pretty outlandish with some of my what-ifs, but something that is very real and that absolutely will happen if SOPA is passed is that really cool start-ups won’t have a chance to succeed simply because they don’t have the manpower to fight lawsuits or police what users are creating to the high standards that will be legally required. Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, GOOGLE for crying out loud – these are all companies that couldn’t have happened if SOPA had passed before they were founded. People out there are wondrously creative and smart, and we’re going to miss out on a lot of really cool stuff because it will be too hard for these companies to gain any traction under SOPA. Take a moment to think of the crazy number of jobs that won’t be created. Sounds really awesome for the economy, right? Even some big-name companies might call it quits if it because too cost-intensive to comply.

A world without Twitter? I think I have to change my pants again.

And you know what? SOPA has all these bad effects WITHOUT STOPPING PIRATES. Even if every single pirate safe haven online gets shut down, people will find a way to get what they want if they don’t have the money for it. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to stop piracy, plagiarism, and general mean-spirited mischief online. It just means what we need to do so in a way that doesn’t blanket-punish all the good kids in class because one student was talking during nap time.

Get out there and write to your congressmen and women. Blog about it. Support companies speaking out against it. Educate people who are, like me, in need of education about the topic. Let it be known, even if it passes, that you don’t agree.

My name is Allison Boyer, and while I don’t speak for the rest of the staff here at BlogWorld, personally, I don’t agree.

I think I’ve ranted long enough, so now I want to hear your opinions. Has SOPA made you soil your undergarments? What are you doing about it? What do you think would be a better answer to online piracy?

Philly’s Blog Tax: You’re Mad for the Wrong Reasons


Last week, Valerie Rubinsky of the Philadelphia City Paper broke a news story that’s been getting national attention. Bloggers in this city are now required to purchase a $300 business license if their blog is designed to make money. For many bloggers, that price far exceeds the amount of money they make on their blog. Heck, even if they take the $50 per year option instead of the one-time $300 option, many bloggers are still losing money every year.

Keep in mind that this is on top of local taxes any blogger has to pay on earnings. For some bloggers, this may mean they have to shut down their blogs.

To say that this is an unpopular law is an understatement. I’m seeing bloggers across the country tweeting about it, outraged at the idea that hobby bloggers will have to buy a license. That’s typically the initial reaction whenever people have to pay more in taxes.

I’m not a tax professional. Not at all. If you want a tax professional, head to taxgirl, who is, coincidentally, from Philly. So, if you think I’m misinformed on any of the below points, please, please, please correct me. I’ve spent some time reading about this issue, doing the best research I could do in a limited time, and this is my main conclusion:

Ya’ll are mad for the wrong reason.

I get it. No one wants to pay more money. Everyone is already responsible for paying taxes on any income they earn from blogging, and this seems like overkill. But if you really are outraged by this law, you should have been fighting for small business rights a long time ago.

Hear me out.

Point One: This isn’t a new law.

This is a law already in place that they are newly trying to enforce. Yes, I do believe its because the city needs money, not because they feel like some great injustice is occurring. That doesn’t change the fact that businesses in Philadelphia have been required to buy a license for…well, I can’t find a date when this policy was first put into effect, but before last week! What is new is the fact that they are now identifying bloggers as business owners, whereas they did not before.

Point Two: Bloggers ARE business owners.

Not every blogger is a business owner, of course, but if you’re actively trying to make a profit on your blog, you certainly are! I’ve fought tooth an nail to be considered legitimate, to teach people that blogging is not just about having an online journal. Heck, there’s even a panel at BlogWorld about how to treat your blog more like a business. The definition of business is “commercial enterprise: the activity of providing goods and services involving financial and commercial and industrial aspects.” If you make money from your blog, even just a little, you’re providing goods (content) for money. Go ahead and argue with me that I’m not a business owner. I will claw out your eyes.

Point Three: Not every business is successful.

Let’s say a new restaurant pops up in your community. After about a year, the owner declares bankruptcy because they haven’t been successful at making money. Does that mean that they weren’t actually a business? No way. Businesses try to make money, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t a business if they don’t actually make any money or make only a small amount. So if you’re a blogger trying to make money, it shouldn’t matter how successful you are. You’re a business, the same way a failed restaurant is a business.

Point Four: The world isn’t fair.

Businesses, including bloggers, have to pay for a business license in Philly. They don’t have to in other jurisdictions. That’s not fair.

Dude. The world isn’t fair. No matter where you live, there’s going to be something that isn’t fair about it. It’s not fair that I have to pay for trash removal when my friend, who lives a few towns over and pays the same tax rate, has his trash picked up for free. It’s not fair that my parents have to pay more money for Internet service than I do because they live in a rural area. It’s not fair that people in some counties of Pennsylvania have to pay for an annual emissions test on their car, while people in other counties do not.

I am not saying that you should just live with it. If you disagree with the fact that Philly requires a business license, you don’ t have to live there. Move outside of the city limits. I know that’s not an easy thing for many people to do, but we all get to choose where we live. No one’s holding a gun to your head and making your live in Philly, so if you don’t agree with the city’s policies, don’t live there.

Or, better yet, head to the polls and vote for people who make policies that fall in line with what you believe. Get out there and support Bill Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez in their quest to change this law so that a clear line is drawn between what is and what is not a business. But don’t do so because you don’t think it’s fair for you to have to pay for a license. Do so because you think it is the most fair option for all businesses in the city, both online and brick-and-mortar.

Point Five: It is really easy to not be a business.

The last point I want to make is this: if you honestly don’t consider your blog a business, you should have no problem taking down your advertising. From what I’ve read, Philly is not saying that hobby blogs with no form of income have to buy a license. The city is only requiring to purchase the license if you make money some way. So, if you made $10 in the past year and are outraged that someone would consider you a business because it’s only $10, remove your ads and truly be a hobby bloggers. After all, in your own words, it was only $10.

If that thought makes you mad, if you believe you have the right to make back some money for the content you provide on your blog, congratulations – you are a business. Yes, you absolutely have the right to make money – just remember that in Philly, the law says you have to be licensed to do so, no matter how much money you make.

I hope I haven’t created too many enemies with this piece. Even some of the other people here at BlogWorld may not agree with me on this one. It certainly is a hot topic right now, and whenever people are told they owe money, it’s an involuntary reaction to go on the defense. As it is written, the law isn’t fair, in my opinion…but there needs to be a threshold in place for all businesses, not just bloggers.

Allison Boyer is a writer for BWE’s blog and the owner/manager of After Graduation. She’s promises not to claw out your eyes if you disagree with her, only if you tell her she’s not a legitimate business owner. Disagreeing (in a mature way) is as encouraged as showing support!

Twitter To Threaten U.S. Trials?


Twitter As services like Facebook and Twitter continue to dive deeper and deeper into our lives, it looks like there are some people out there that view the services as more of a threat than anyone previously believed.  The fact that they allow anyone, anywhere to get intimate and in-depth looks into someone else’s life is no secret about Twitter, it’s the reality that actually made the service so immediately popular.  Now, however, there are some slight concerns being raised, especially in the world of the U.S. Legal System.

That’s right, looks like so me people out there are a bit afraid that Twitter and Facebook, most specifically their ability to instantly and easily update everyone as to exactly what’s going on with a certain person, might be jeopardizing trials and legal events.  According to recent reports:

“The verdicts in two US trials are being appealed against because jurors made comments about them on social networking sites.  Defence lawyers in the two cases say postings by jurors on sites like Twitter and Facebook could be grounds for appeal.”

As you know, jurors are forbidden to discuss anything relating to the case anywhere outside the deliberation room.  By allowing Twitter and Facebook, they are able to interact directly with thousands and millions of people with the simple push of a few cell phone buttons.  Yikes.  The question is, how do we enable our court systems to work in the new world?  Traditionally they’ve been plagued with an inability to work with the “Wired World” and as we move further and further into new technology, new media and social networking, these problems will no doubt continue to surface.

The question is, how do we address it?  How can we ensure fair and impartial trials without taking technology completely out of the equation?  What do you think?  Sound off…

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