Reddit makes gross mistakes trying to write bill to replace abusive SOPA, PIPA

Input from everyone? Mob rule! Grass-roots activism? No one's getting paid!

Social networking site Reddit.com is going against the most successful habits of successful politicians by actually proposing solutions to proposals Reddit was instrumental in defeating.

Rather than simply continue to crow about the success of a coalition of civil- and digital-rights groups in opposing the Internet-censoring SOPA and PIPA bills, Reddit is now proposing alternative legislation (Reddit video announcement) to address copyright infringement on the web without (the proposers hope) the same dismissal of individual rights that were integral to both the original bills.

The "Free Internet Act," is open-source legislation, debated and hammered into shape by volunteer contributors on Reddit's r/fia sub-forum, standing in as volunteer representatives for the rest of us.

The proposal is partly an effort to treat international copyright infringement as a legitimate issue, but not an excuse to criminalize most consumers and deputize ISPs, site owners, the Dept. of Justice and almost anyone else into service to enforce exaggerated rights of private industry.

Even trying to develop a reasonable law with the cooperation of people of varying points of view violates all the most successful tactics of modern domestic politics – in which it's rare to call anyone on the carpet for simply complaining about an issue rather than offering an alternative that might fix a problem.

Looking for an answer before we get slimed by the next "solution"

In this case the FIA is an attempt to head off what looks like building momentum to accept the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – an international treaty agreed to in principle last Fall by the U.S. and 22 European nations, but ratified so far by only a few.

ACTA's main point is to treat digital property in exactly the same way as physical property and to allow owners of that property to identify theft, smuggling or other misuses of their brand or property.

Critics (mostly in Europe, where ACTA has caused sometimes violent protests in the real world and online) claim that gives one country the right to reach into another to prosecute someone for behavior that may be legal in the second country.

European companies, for example, might be able to prosecute a U.S. web site for not handling either software or customer data according to the laws of that particular company.

European critics claim ACTA violates European Union laws against such intrusions and violates the privacy and data-protection rules for which Europe is famous. It may violate U.S. laws for the same reason.

(Here's an explication and discussion of ACTA with much of its language intact, on the site of the anti-ACTA, pro-digital-rights group Knowledge Ecology International.)

The anti-counterfeiting rules and decision to treat illegal downloads in the same way as illegally manufactured pharmaceuticals warps the treaty enough that any enforcement would almost certainly violate U.S. laws.

One major objection is that ACTA was negotiated in secret and signed, other critics charge, in violation of U.S. law, which gives the president no right to negotiate intellectual property treaties unilaterally.

According to the anti-ACTA Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the effect of the treaty would be "to create a new standard of intellectual property enforcement above the current internationally-agreed standards in the TRIPs Agreement and increased international cooperation including sharing of information between signatory countries' law enforcement agencies."

Reddit's list mistakes devleloping Free Internet Act: (Sheesh, aren't you trying to make any money?)

It's easy to attribute too many virtues to people we agree with and negative intent in those we don't.

It's hard to criticize or dismiss an effort designed specifically to address the weaknesses in a widely hated law that was designed to address a problem widely acknowledges as real and serious, though only a fraction as serious as the "victims" claim it is.

The Free Internet Act (which might also be the Internet Freedom Act, depending on who you read) isn't quite ready for a final vote in Congress yet.

There's even some disagreement over whether the Free Internet Act should be an international treaty instead of a U.S. law.

There is a central principle, however:

The Internet Freedom Act: To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation by preventing the restriction of liberty and preventing the means of censorship. IFA will allow internet users to browse freely without any means of censorship, users have the right to free speech and to freeknowledge; we govern the content of the internet, governments don’t. However enforcements/laws must also be put into place to protect copyrighted content. – Redditors at r/fia, Feb. 1, 2012

Despite good intentions, Reddit has made some critical errors in its relatively chaotic, democracy-by-potential-flamewar process of developing legislation:

  • First, unlike the primary congressional sponsors of SOPA and PIPA, Reddit didn't get the campaign money up front. Waiting to approve of a bill until it passes – even though you're being paid to believe in it – is an unprofitable sellout – the worst kind.
  • Second, it got no agreement for ongoing "support" (more donations) from the interested parties (on both sides) to keep the bill from getting even worse.
  • Third: Reddit is not only developing its legislation in public, it's letting members of the public take part, even take primary roles.

In the current version of the national political rulebook, the only people allowed to propose or comment on impending legislation are giant campaign donors and little old ladies (ringers planted in the audience by campaign staffs) who make pity-inducing comments on camera at campaign rallies.

On the campaign trail, any candidate or party that conducted such a public debate, exposing their plans, weaknesses and goals in the process, would be either held up to ridicule or tromped into the mud.

Proposing a solution? How weak!

Reddit's legislation has absolutely no chance of being taken seriously by more than a few gadflies in Congress.

Congress doesn't listen to amateur legislatures except in specifically non-threatening circumstances. In Congress, Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, the millions who use them and millions more influenced by them are all just numbers in an opinion survey – not one of the polls campaigners use like compasses to steer their ships by, either.

To Congress and other SOPA supporters – such as Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom – Redditors, EFFers and others opposing SOPA are "a mob" that killed the bill with outrage and a sense of violation, not whatever Dauman uses in place of real emotion.

“It was almost religious dogma. People were saying [the bills] would have broken the Internet, that it would have created censorship around the world,” Dauman said.

Clearly the opposition was wrong; SOPA wouldn’t have created censorship all over the world; it would have allowed Viacom to censor things all over the world. Much different (in that the guy criticizing the "mob" would have been one of those making censoring decisions; censors never think they're the ones doing the censoring.)

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To RIAA and MPAA, opponents to SOPA are content thieves with no right to expect any quarter from copyright holders.

To the rest of the world, Reddit and all the rest of them are…us. They are the citizens of the world on whom the consequences of bad laws and bad leaders fall. They are the victims of unintended circumstance, fodder for cannons, marchers pointed where they are told to go.

But they're not going.

Obviously, in the view of those making the decisions, the direction we're headed remains the right one and the obstacles in the way are those complaining that we'll be trampling fields of beautiful flowers on the way to the world of perfect copyright-enforcement.

Quixotic as it seems to be hammering together legislation that does what it has to without hurting people it doesn't have to hurt, Redditors are doing the right thing.

They complained about the impending finalization of a bad law. Now they're working on a way to solve the problem without all the fatal side effects.

When you hear abuse coming from the other side, ridiculing Redditors for their presumption, naiveté and obvious criminal intent, keep that in mind.

It's not Reddit or Wikipedia or the EFF or any of the other opponents who are working so hard to do the wrong thing.

You can tell that for yourself; people trying to do the wrong thing generally try to keep it secret until it's too late.

Reddit and its denizens are many things; keepers of secrets isn't one of them.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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