The nature of the Stop Online Piracy Act – a proposed bill designed to let the US government block access to sites that promote piracy – reeks of a curious mix of malevolence and stupidity, a particularly repugnant scent that often seems to waft from the halls and corridors of power. If successful, SOPA would usher in a new era of Internet censorship and irrevocably damage the concept of free speech forever.
Given the phrasing of the bill, it’s hardly a surprise that so many gaming publishers and developers, including the entire ESA, have come out in favor of SOPA. The industry has waged a costly war with piracy for the better part of two decades. With nothing having worked so far, SOPA is just the latest fad in a war that has arguably already been lost and no longer serves a purpose. What many companies seem to be neglecting to consider, however, are the negative effects SOPA would have on the gaming community and thus by extension the industry as a whole.
In the fantasy world that only seems to exist in the upper echelons of the income bracket, SOPA would make the removal of pirated content as simple as clicking a button, and through sheer force of will, the true, legitimate sites of the Internet would turn their backs on piracy forever. No longer would the likes of Google or YouTube be able to hide behind a mask of anonymity and such quaint ideals as “fair use.” The provisions of SOPA expressly move the power into the hands of the private companies and actively encourage self-censorship at the expense of free speech.
Strictly, as far as piracy is concerned, however, SOPA is like hiring a kitchen plumber to fix the Hoover Dam. The only way to ever truly eradicate piracy would be to monitor every computer on the planet 24/7, and even then you’re neglecting to remember that the people you’re chasing tend to be pretty good at covering their tracks. The reality of SOPA – and the world in general while we’re at it – is that the little guy is always going to be the one to get fucked over.
Under the current terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, issues of copyright infringement are handled thusly: Random Guy X posts speed run video to YouTube, company Y sends a notice to the Internet service provider (ISP) to take down the offending content, and then at this point the onus falls on the accused to argue why their not doing anything wrong (“fair use” most of the time). If nothing happens after that – which is generally the case since company Y doesn’t have the time or money to prosecute thousands of cases a day – then the video goes back up and everyone gets on with their lives. Thanks to the wording of SOPA, however, instances such as these will rarely get past step two. Indeed since the act widens the net of those at fault to include search engines and advertising companies, any site that does attempt to continue things the way they are is liable to find themselves cut off at the knees.
Not every major gaming company has thrown their weight behind SOPA, and in these abstentions and dissenting opinions we begin to piece together a picture of the negative effect Internet censorship could have on the industry. Microsoft are perhaps the biggest company to have quietly dissented against SOPA, ostensibly on the basis that the act is far too reaching and liable to abuse. It’s a surprising move to many since, Microsoft’s bread and butter is licensing. Yet that they have expressed concerns with the new bill speaks volumes about the ridiculous lack of thought that has gone into SOPA.
Social MMOs like World of Warcraft will be amongst the first games to feel the negative effects of intense Internet censorship. Blizzard learned this the hard way when word leaked about their plans for Real ID, which would have required all registered members of the Battle.net forums to post under their real name. The intense fan backlash taught Blizzard a valuable lesson that day, and they soon reversed the policy once it became how important anonymity was too many in the gaming community. The fear that one wrong word or offhanded comment will call the thought police to your door is hardly conducive to the the free flowing community that WoW and its ilk thrive on.
Between issues of due process and the ever widening reach of the man with the banhammer, SOPA stands to tear down the pillars of the gaming community that have seen it thrive on the internet. Ironically, the full title of the Stop Internet Piracy Act begins, “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation,” when these are the exact things we stand to lose with the advent of Internet censorship. Simply put, the specter of government oversight will kill organic growth.
For the most part, the makeup of the gaming community is such that the majority will oppose SOPA almost by default. The concern for gamers, though, is more than a mere matter of morals. Were SOPA to pass, the myriad of problems that would inevitably arise would erode the tight knit fabric of the community. Anything that negatively impacts the consumer will for sure come to threaten the rest of the market, and the likes of Nintendo and Sony will be in for a rude awakening if their misguided supports breeds success.
We simply can not sit idly by and let a gaggle of geriatrics screw the world like this. It’s been barely half a year since the landmark case of Brown v. EMA that set the precedent for video games to be protected under free speech. SOPA is nothing but a step backwards from that, and sets us back down the road of society wide censorship a la the increasingly prophetic words of George Orwell and 1984.
The views and opinions in this article are Iain’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of Piki Geek as a whole.