Why We're Not Protesting SOPA Today

Some of our readers hoped that we would be offline today. Some are upset to see Kotaku online and updating.

They—perhaps, you—wanted Kotaku to join a widespread online protest against SOPA and PIPA, two anti-piracy bills that are making their way through Congress. Critics consider these things Internet censorship bills and have cheered Reddit, Wikipedia and other sites for going dark and staging online protests today.

But we are here. I'll tell you why. And, no, it's not because we love SOPA.

Our mandate is to report news and sometimes offer opinion about video games, gaming culture and the way gaming intersects with the culture at large. I believe it is our job to cover protest movements but not to be part of them.

Of course, SOPA and PIPA are important. The energy of the SOPA protest movement is impressive. It, like SOPA and PIPA themselves, are stories we refuse to ignore. We have covered them as such for several months. We have written a primer for SOPA, reported the mixed messages of the game companies that do or don't or haven't decided to say if they support SOPA. We covered delays in the bills' progress, the White House's position against the bills and just two days ago divulged the amount of money the gaming industry's chief lobbyists paid to argue for PIPA this past spring and summer. (They have not responded to our requests about how much money they spent this fall).

Why We're Not Protesting SOPA Today

If you enjoy video games or using the Internet or care about copyright, you should be paying attention. You should see what Wikipedia looks like right now. You should read Reddit's excellent breakdown of its problems with the legislation. Check out the new primer by our pals at Gizmodo, too.

There are numerous problems with SOPA and PIPA. One of the biggest is that critics and supporters don't even agree on what the bills mean. SOPA potentially strangles "foreign" sites that host copyrighted material by delisting them from search engines and cutting off ad and payment providers, which is a troubling enough amplification of government power to some. But vague language in the bill also threatens to cut off ad and payment providers from "U.S.-directed" sites, which could include sites based in America. On the other hand, you have Congressman and SOPA author Lamar Smith complaining about protests against his bill and claiming that it was only ever meant to go after "foreign thieves."

SOPA is miserably vague in so many ways. Its section that classifies streaming video as a copyright infringement susceptible to all of the aforementioned website-strangling, describes a potentially problematic video stream as follows:

‘(a) CRIMINAL INFRINGEMENT.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed-
(A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain;
(B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, or by the public performance by means of digital transmission, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copyrighted works, when the total retail value of the copies or phonorecords, or of the public performances, is more than $1,000; or
(C) by the distribution or public performance of a work being prepared for commercial dissemination, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial dissemination

It's no wonder that an outfit like the League of Legends creators at Riot Games read that and worry that a livestream of a great LoL match could be found in violation of SOPA the moment someone starts singing the lyrics of a copyrighted song on it. Is that really the kind of stifling of the Internet the writers of SOPA and PIPA are seeking? They argue they want to crack down on piracy. That example, a potential SOPA violation, doesn't seem a bit like piracy.

SOPA and PIPA are, arguably, futile and unnecessary measures, as our colleagues at Lifehacker explain in their fine teardown of the bills today. Online copyright laws already prohibit many of the kinds of infringements SOPA and PIPA are written against (though, why, pray tell, can I still find so many copyrighted TV shows on YouTube? So much for enforcement, for better or worse.) Lifehacker and others assume that crafty web users could find their way around many of SOPA and PIPA's restrictions. Critics fret over the potential fracturing of the Internet, of the creation of a shadow Internet that the framers of SOPA and PIPA are too ignorant to reach.

Critics of SOPA and PIPA also fear that the bills would kill message boards and murder memes. They read the bills, they see the language about how a site could have all of its income shut off simply because a copyright-holder got a court order against it, and they assume that message boards would operate in a self-censoring fear, squelching the type of joyful or acerbic repurposing of content that energizes so much Internet discussion.

The Internet protest that is happening today was originally intended to coincide with a new House hearing on SOPA. That hearing was delayed until February. PIPA continues to move ahead in the Senate and is scheduled for a vote on the 24th. The House and Senate both need to pass bills, and get a reconciled version signed by the President. The President's team, however, has said they won't sign a bill that stifles start-ups, skirts due process and hampers free speech on the Internet. Critics of the Obama Administration say the President hasn't held to such promises before, but the support for this legislation does show signs of erosion.

Amid the furor over SOPA and PIPA, we find gamers' new favorite target: the ESA. The Entertainment Software Association is a lobbying organization funded by video game publishers. Day by day, they push for video-game-related issues in Washington, D.C. They argue for tax and immigration policies that would favor the gaming industry. They push for speech issues. They're the ones who defended video games' First Amendment rights successfully in the Supreme Court two years ago. They're also the organization that stages E3 each year. They support SOPA and PIPA, and therefore we now see people who work in or love video games saying it's time to stop supporting them. Publisher Red 5 has pulled out of E3. And this morning we have an online video exhorting the gaming press to refrain from covering E3 to send the ESA a message. We will cover anti-ESA protests. We will not join them for the reasons stated above. I do not believe that is our role as a news organization to join any protest.

Last night, on Twitter, a reader charged that we would be choosing pageviews over principle. Our principle is to serve our readers by bringing them news and opinion. That principle guides us to urge you to pay attention today and any other day to SOPA, to PIPA and to all the other wonderful or horrid things that affect video games, the Internet and your sense of what is right.

Stay informed: Read SOPA. Read PIPA.