Whose Web is it, Anyway?

John Bentham-Dinsdale, “Barbary Pirates.” via.

Anyone old enough to remember life before the Internet may remember the infamous luxury tax. In an attempt to raise government revenues, Washington levied a ten percent tax on cars valued above $30,000, boats above $100,000, jewelry and furs above $10,000 and private planes above $250,000. Congressional leaders crowed publicly about how the rich would finally be paying their fair share, even convincing President George H.W. Bush to renounce his ‘no new taxes’ pledge” and sign the bill.

Almost immediately these class warriors realized how badly their best intentions missed the mark. The punitive new taxes took in $97 million less in their first year than had been projected for the simple reason that there were now a lot fewer people buying these products.

The New England boat building industry was left devastated—a staple of the economy in the states of key legislators who had pushed the law. Yacht retailers reported a 77 percent drop in sales that year and boat builders estimated layoffs at 25,000. By some reports, the additional unemployment insurance paid out due to the crippled industries actually resulted in a netdecrease of revenue.

By 1996, with bipartisan support, Congress voted to repeal this numb-skulled attempt to manipulate consumer behavior. Two decades later, it’s beginning to look like Congress may not have learned—or forgotten—this lesson in unintended consequences. I’m referring to SOPA—the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act.

Like the luxury tax before it, the objective of this act—the theft of Internet content—is noble. It is undeniable that unscrupulous operators of sites like The Pirate Bay are blatantly stealing movies or music and cashing in on them. And the powerful entertainment lobby is perfectly justified in protecting these rights—but is federal legislation the answer? Are we ready to give faceless bureaucrats in Washington DC, many of whom would be hard pressed to distinguish Twitter from kitty litter, carte blanche to effectively censor the Internet for a bunch of Hollywood lawyers?

As always, the devil is in the details, and considering recent legislation easily consumes thousands of pages—if not trees—there is a lot of detail waiting to feed the unintended consequences machine. Much of this detail involves the arcane art of copyright law, an infinitely fertile field for mischief, intended or otherwise. The punishments for alleged copyright abuse as defined by SOPA are significant and, while targeted at those who make their dishonest livings through piracy, the draconian measures outlined in this legislation will undoubtedly impact the unsuspecting and the innocent as well.

Paul Tassi is a freelance journalist you also runs the popular online movie/TV/gaming site “Unreality.” In a recent Forbes story, Paul tells of the Congressional hearings where SOPA was debated. The consensus among Congress, Paul recounts, was merely that, “piracy sounds bad, therefore we should pass this anti-piracy bill,” or one representative who wanted to pass the bill, “because she was bored”(remember that kitty litter…).

“These elected officials representatives have no idea the amount of power they’re giving the entertainment industry,” argues Tassi (or, more darkly, know exactly how much power is being transferred, but also know exactly how dangerously low their re-election campaign funds are). The point being that there are those in Congress who, without taking the time to understand even the most basic implications, would take action that has the potential of destroying an entire industry—one that is of the few remaining engines of growth in the US economy.

In 1801, president Thomas Jefferson, still looking for respect among the seasoned states of Europe, sent a fleet of warships from our young US Navy to the northern African coast to dispatch the Barbary pirates, who were wrecking havoc on ocean trade. Unfortunately, today’s Internet pirates are not so easily identified, and square-rigged frigates carrying cannon are more effective weapons than those born by clueless bureaucrats with reams of new regulations and campaign war chests to fill.

Milo Winter, “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.” 1919. Via.

Now is hardly the time to interfere with one of the last industries creating jobs. “Just say no” to Hollywood lobbyists and their Capital Hill stooges who only threaten to kill another golden goose.

Gary Griffiths
Trapit CEO and Co-founder

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