Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Free Speech is Not Negotiable: Stop SOPA

I began paying close attention to the climate debate after I noticed that activists were trampling on a fundamental human right – that of free speech. Rather than encouraging open and honest dialogue, alarmingly high-profile individuals were trying to shut down the discussion.

You can see and hear former US Vice President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Al Gore declaring in this 8-minute video that “the debate is over.” Ditto former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:

But the debate is never over. Ideas change, our communities evolve. If our forebearers had taken the position that ‘the debate is over’ women still wouldn’t have the vote. Racial minorities would still be required to use separate drinking fountains. School boards would be banned from distributing textbooks to white children if they’d already been used by black children.

Today, January February 18, 2012, is a day of protest. Websites as diverse as Wikipedia and WattsUpWithThat have gone dark to call attention to the fact that two proposed US laws will interfere with free speech on the Internet.

The graphic at the top of this post refers to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently before the US House of Representatives. A similar law, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), is also before the US Senate.

These laws are being vociferously supported by lobbyists for old media – exactly the sort of media that has done such an abysmal job of informing the public about the climate debate.

According to the supporters of these bills, draconian laws are necessary to protect the intellectual property of those who make their living recording music, writing books and software, publishing newspapers and magazines, producing films, and so forth.

As someone who has spent the bulk of my working life as a writer and photographer let me say loud and clear: these big media lobbyists do not speak for me. If the choice is between free speech and my ability to earn a living unencumbered by Internet piracy FREE SPEECH WINS. Hands down. Every time.

Business models come and go. Occupations come and go. As Roger Pielke Jr. points out, it now requires only 177 people to accomplish tasks that required 1,000 people in 1950. This trend isn’t new. Blacksmiths were in demand once. They aren’t now. That’s life.

The big media players are attempting to lock in their current position, to freeze this moment in time, to insulate themselves from change. They think it’s okay to interfere with the free speech of ordinary people in order to accomplish this goal. That tells me everything I need to know.

As an editorial in Canada’s National Post argues today (yes, they’re a big media company, but even they recognize the danger), these laws would:

force American website operators to police every single piece of user-generated content on their sites — an impossible job with potentially huge liability costs.

The video embedded above is a good example of the kind of content WordPress would be expected to remove. Technically, it was created by – and is therefore the property of – ABC, a US television network.

From my perspective, the video is a historical document. The ability to embed it in this blog allows me to support my assertions with hard evidence. It helps all of us understand what has been going on. Should Al Gore ever deny that he uttered such words, the ability of members of the general public to link to this video on their Facebook page would be critically important.

As the National Post editorial explains, even if I were to move this blog to a Canadian server (it currently lives on WordPress servers in the US), it wouldn’t matter:

SOPA and PIPA would give the U.S. government the direct authority to block entire domains and blocks of IP addresses. Canadians should be especially concerned about this, since the legislation treats all dot-com, dot-net and dot-org domains — as well as all North American IP addresses — as “domestic Internet protocol addresses” that would be subject to U.S. law. [bold added]

Here’s one last quote:

The bills would employ the same practices used by authoritarian regimes, such as China and Iran, to censor information and quash dissent. Ironically, they would also outlaw the technologies that foreign activists use to evade censorship, including those developed by the U.S. government.

A back-up of the editorial may be seen here. I frequently include back-up links in my posts since content often disappears from the Internet (or gets moved). The ability to back-up newspaper articles we don’t own the rights to is important to bloggers, journalists, researchers, and book authors. But it is exactly the kind of thing these laws could be used to shut down.

I recently spent two weeks in Europe promoting my book. During those two weeks I met numerous individuals in multiple communities. This was only possible because we’d already learned about each other via the amazing invention called the Internet.

It is no exaggeration to say that the vibrant, international climate skeptic community owes its very existence to the Internet.

Free speech is precious. The Internet is precious. We must defend both.

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Donna Laframboise is a former Vice President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (1998-2001).

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UPDATE, 18 Jan 6 pm:
In the “credit where it’s due department” this is what the Greenpeace International website looks like today:

click for a larger view

When both WattsUpWithThat and Greenpeace can see eye-to-eye on an issue this important, we should all feel heartened.

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