UPDATE: I was wrong in this post in saying that a boycott stifles free speech. A boycott is a form of free speech. I retracted that argument in a subsequent post a few hours later. *sigh*
The opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the bill before Congress to punish websites that publish pirated songs, movies and essays, has united behind the theme of free speech.
But now in a turn worthy of the pigs in Animal Farm, Paul Graham, Chris Dixon, Fred Wilson and others are organizing a campaign to intimidate and silence those who support the bill, retaliating against law firms, journalists and investors alike.
Who knows who was the first to sharpen a stick at both ends, but many were clearly eager to join the fray. Joyce Kim encouraged entrepreneurs to fire lawyers who support SOPA. Chris Dixon wondered aloud if journalists from pro-SOPA newspapers should be excluded from press events (update: Chris in the comments has made clear that he wasn’t saying he was in favor of excluding journalists from anything). Paul Graham just joined the mob, immediately agreeing to block pro-SOPA investors from getting access to the startups he advises.
To which I can only say: please add me to the black-list. Not because I support the bill. As I’ve written before, it is flawed in exactly the way most democratic legislation is: it’s a dog’s breakfast of competing interests, force-fed to the innocent and guilty alike.
I just don’t like bullies. Especially hypocritical bullies. If you actually believe in free speech, and not simply the free distribution of other people’s intellectual property, you should let journalists, law firms and investors exercise their rights to it alongside your own. And yes, working on a bill in an open, democratic process is a valid expression of speech.
Instead, we are threatening anyone who disagrees with us. Like all ideologues, we have convinced ourselves that the other side is a wealthy special interest as if we are not very wealthy, very special and very interested. We imagine that we are trying to protect the Internet only for noble purposes, but it’s also true that we stand to make billions of dollars from the Internet staying just the way it is.
And like all violent ideologues, we have convinced ourselves that the issue is so pressing it demands extreme action. The stakes in this case are usually described as “breaking the Internet,” when in fact it’s already broken: not for the folks profiting today from the Internet, but for all the folks who create the beautiful books, articles, movies and music that the Internet is so often used to steal.
What we need is a discussion about how to make the Internet work for artists, software companies and regular folks alike. No one in software seems interested in that conversation: more than a month ago, we asked everyone opposed to the bill to suggest a better way to prevent piracy, and still no one has.
Now, we have taken this a step further. Not only are we refusing to engage in a constructive way, we are threatening anyone who engages in a way that is disagreeable to us. When no conversation is possible and no action from us is forthcoming, we can hardly blame the Luddites, bureaucrats, idiots and meddlers for being ill-informed or hasty.
Over the holidays especially, we need to stand down from the crazed ideological stances and self-interested politics that are ruining this country, and work together with people we don’t always like to figure out how the Internet — and everything else — can be made better, not worse.