February 8, 2012 | By corynne mcsherry

What the RIAA Won’t Tell You: Users Matter

We really have to wonder when the message is going to sink in.  On January 18, millions of Internet users spoke out together in one of the most profound and effective uses of technology to organize political opposition in U.S. history, sending a clear message to Congress that voters will not tolerate crippling of the Internet. But big content remains tone deaf to this chorus of Internet users. 

This morning, the New York Times published a lengthy screed from Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, complaining about how “Google and Wikipedia” got in the way of efforts to ram through the Internet blacklist bills, never mind the massive collateral damage to Internet security, expression, and innovation those bills would have caused.  Techdirt's Mike Masnick has a great point-by-point response (noting, among other things, the profound hypocrisy of SOPA/PIPA proponents claiming the tide of opposition to the bills was based solely on “misinformation,” given that they have been feeding Congress and the public overblown statistics for years).

But it seems to us that the op-ed's really unfortunate message is that Hollywood still thinks the way forward is for a few executives to sit down together and make a deal. He calls on “the companies” that opposed the bills to come up with “constructive alternatives” and then have a "fact-based conversation" with the entertainment industries. MPAA chair Chris Dodd made a similar call a few weeks ago.  Even New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller seems to think this comes down to a few "players": in his own piece on the battle against the bills, he seemed to assume that Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales is the only person who matters on the other side of this debate.    

That’s precisely the wrong approachIt was great to see technology companies and platform hosts like Wikipedia stand up against SOPA and PIPA.  But the people Hollywood most needs to consult now are the users of the internet– the millions of people who have found their voice due, in part, to the emergence of technologies and platforms that allow them to speak to a bigger audience then ever before.

The truth is that a broad swath of public interest, consumer rights, and human rights groups were fighting these bills from the get-go, because we saw how they would harm users, not just technology companies and platforms.  Due in part to the hard work of this coalition in raising public awareness, millions of those users saw that, too, and that’s why they contacted their Congressional representatives. We weren’t scared by rhetoric, we were scared by what the bills actually proposed, and we were really scared that the proponents didn’t seem to understand their own legislation. 

Having succeeded in halting the runaway SOPA/PIPA train, Internet users don’t intend to just stand down and let a few tech companies, who need to worry about their bottom line along with the needs of users, or even crucial nonprofit organizations like Wikipedia, speak for everyone.  Indeed, it’s pretty ironic, and telling, that Sherman’s piece points to the “six-strikes” deal big content made with ISPs last year as a model for the “voluntary cooperation.” Users weren’t at the table when that deal was struck either, even though they’ll be stuck with much of the bill. If they had been, that deal could have been very different, and a lot more fair. 

So, Cary and Chris and even Bill, tell you what: when you are ready to have a “fact-based conversation” with the folks who opposed the bill, let’s do it.  But let’s include the users who are going to feel the real effects of attacks on the platforms and services that they rely on to create, innovate, and communicate.  

Oh, and one more thing: if we’re really going to have a fact-based conversation, let's include the technologists who actually understand the collateral damage that can result when you interfere with Internet architecture, and the economic analysts who are developing real numbers based on hard data, not spin. Thanks.

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