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The Web blackout protests are the clearest evidence yet that the movie lobby and its preeminent tweeter, Rupert Murdoch, have it all wrong. They don't know who their enemy is. They don't even know which battle they are supposed to be fighting. All of that makes for a messy confrontation.
The story line ginned up in coverage of the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is that the dispute is between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Or, if you read the entertainment publications, it's between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. No, the fight is broader. It's between Hollywood and America.
Murdoch brought some new prominence to the mistaken meme with a series of tweets for his new Twitter account on Jan. 14, following the release of a White House statement opposing the PIPA and SOPA bills in their current form. A day earlier, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) suspended the committee votes scheduled originally for Jan. 18, although he later said the votes would take place in February. Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) cancelled his hearing that would have featured cybersecurity experts, venture capitalists and others opposed to the bill on assurances from Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) that only a consensus bill would advance to the House floor. The Senate is still supposed to vote on some form of PIPA on Jan. 24.
Anyway, Murdoch's tweets:
"So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery."
Then he piled on to Google. "Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying."
The third tweet, "Film making risky as hell. This has to lead to less, hurting writers, actors, all concerned."
He ended the string on the 14th by saying he had "Just been to google search for mission impossible. Wow, several sites offering free links. I rest my case." On Monday, he went on another binge, tweeting, "Seems like universal anger with Optus (he meant POTUS, abbreviation for President of the United States) from all sorts of normal supporters. Maybe backing pirates a rare miscalculation by friend Axelrod." He was referring to David Axelrod, chief strategist for President Obama.
Yes, Google is opposed to the intolerable bills, and put up an opposition link on its fabled home page urging "End Piracy, Not Liberty." Google, not coincidentally, was the sole witness at the one House Judiciary Committee hearing on SOPA and was there not so much for its substance but to serve as a whipping post for Committee members.
Other Silicon Valley companies, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo! have registered their displeasure. Yet the industry, like Murdoch, is under the impression that Google and the others are controlling this debate. They are not. Tech companies, frankly, haven't shown the ability to control much of anything in Washington. Despite what Murdoch claims, their lobbying spending and clout is far out matched by the Big Media Megaliths.
That's also why the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) statement about the blackout was by turns amusing, and infuriating. It was the MPAA that wrote and pushed PIPA and SOPA upon their congressional friends, no doubt telling them that the bill was needed, and that their wouldn't be any opposition that couldn't be overcome. Now, protests are turning up all over the country. Instead of recognizing the reality, MPAA asserts, "some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging."
MPAA continued, "It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests." An abuse of power? Furthering of corporate interests? What do they think their two pieces of misbegotten legislation are? What do they think the stacked hearing was all about?
Abuse of power? MPAA and its cohorts have proposed Draconian bills for years, with no shortage of politicians eager to take the movie money, dine with the stars, and crack down on the Internet which few of the august members of Congress admittedly don't understand.
MPAA said the " so-called 'blackout' is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this 'blackout' to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.”
By "meaningful efforts," the MPAA means combat the problem they see, on their terms. The fact that companies comply with thousands of notices under the 1998 law the movie companies wanted, and got, means nothing. The industry declines to endorse the legislative alternative that's out there, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Issa, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
The dismissal of the blackout as a stunt is simply insulting. It's insulting to actor George Takei, who is blacking out his site. It's insulting to filmmaker Nina Paley, who is blacking out hers. It's insulting to gamers and those companies which produce video games defying their trade association to join the protest. It's insulting Wikipedia, Reddit, Wordpress and to the 10,000 or so sites that will participate in the protest the best way they know how. It's insulting to the Internet Archive or Wikipecia. Look at this list. That's not Silicon Valley speaking. It's America speaking
The arrogance of power that pushes these bills refuses to see the political opposition is coming form all directions. It's the liberal and conservative groups, which rarely find common ground, standing firmly on that ground in this effort. When Demand Progress, run by a fairly liberal group, and Don't Censor the Net, run by a former webmaster for the George Bush campaign, get together, that's a unique and powerful alliance. Throw in the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Tea Party, all in opposition, and it's a wonder there are any votes for these monstrosities at all.
In addition to mistaking the opposition, the movie lobby is once again failing to recognize what is at issue. Publisher and content creator Tim O'Reilly, in announcing his support for the blackout, put it best, " Before Solving a Problem, Make Sure You've Got the Right Problem." As O'Reilly advises, "If the goal is really to support jobs and the American economy, internet 'protectionism' is not the way to do it," and he questions the extent to which there is a "piracy" problem. So far, he hasn't seen any real evidence: "Defining the problem means collecting and studying real evidence, not the overblown claims of an industry that has fought the introduction of every new technology that has turned out, in the end, to grow their business rather than threaten it."
If Congress wants to do this right, it should start at the bottom by conducting hearings and studies to determine the extent of the "piracy," and to consider whether it's a business model problem or an enforcement problem facing the industry. Then it should listen to all sides, including those ignored in the SOPA/PIPA fiasco -- law professors, Internet engineers, human rights activists, artists, public interest groups, educators, library professionals, among others, who wrote to Congress in protest. And it should listen to the tens of thousands of ordinary people who called to complain.
And should Congress follow Murdoch's example and look up "Mission Impossible" on Google, it will find right at the top, the official trailer for the movie, which has so far taken in $189.4 million on domestic box office.