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The U.S. House of Representatives is debating legislation that could fundamentally change what types of content we’re allowed to access over the Internet, and the resulting outrage has sparked a heated ideological debate.  But for some reason the media isn’t talking about it.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA, as it’s widely called) was introduced in October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). It’s a boldly ambitious plan to give copyright holders — and the courts, by proxy — better tools to fight the profligacy of online piracy originating from foreign websites.

In a nutshell: SOPA would give copyright holders the power to file lawsuits against sites that they believe are aiding in the pilfering of their goods, be it music, movies, TV shows, video games, or the distribution of tangible, counterfeit consumables. Judges could file injunctions against Internet Service Providers or individual websites, forcing them to block access to foreign sites deemed in violation of U.S. copyright law.

Included in the bill is an immunity provision for Internet providers that proactively remove “rogue” sites from their registries. In other words, SOPA attacks Internet piracy not by going after sites that create and supply nefarious content, but by censoring ISPs and search engines that enable their availability, knowingly or not. Specific targets include payment providers (like PayPal) that facilitate transactions with spurious sites, and ad services (like Google’s AdSense) that promote copyright infringing content in search results. The bill’s authors are aware that many of the Internet’s biggest bootleggers operate overseas. Because attorneys general can’t round up foreign DVD pirates, they’ll instead punish U.S. sites that facilitate a portion of their profits.

SOPA currently has thirty-one Congressional sponsors. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (better known as PIPA), was passed but is currently on hold and awaiting further debates. Given the noted support that SOPA has received from both political parties, it’s important to mention that the divide over the bill is economic rather than political. Supporters and detractors comprise a who’s who in the supply chain of the digital commerce world: on the former side you’ll find virtually every U.S. broadcast and major media company, as well as manufacturers like Sony, video game giant Capcom, comic publisher Marvel, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America, to name a few; on the latter is a groundswell of opposition from creators, artists, grassroots advocates, and Internet leaders like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, Reddit, and non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the ACLU.

Supporters of the proposed bill believe that SOPA gives copyright holders some much needed legal teeth to curb online theft.  Opponents—and I count myself among them—argue that this is yet another example of the government’s increasing tendency to provision our freedoms under the auspices of safety. It gives the U.S. Department of Justice unprecedented authority to trowel the Internet for content it doesn’t like, in effect taking on the role of content arbiter.

To say that the opposition has been vocal would be an understatement. In January, Wikipedia announced it would shut down the English portion of its site for 24 hours in protest of the legislation. [Happening 1/18, at the time of publication.] Co-founder Jimmy Wales also said he’d pull all Wikimedia content from hosting company Go Daddy’s servers in opposition to their SOPA advocacy (Go Daddy has since rescinded its support of SOPA, claiming it now opposes the bill). Social site Reddit has staged a boycott against pro-SOPA companies, targeting anyone who’s in favor of its passage. Unlikely political bedfellows such as Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore have joined forces to denounce the bill.

Given the historic magnitude of what’s being proposed inside the Beltway, it’s decidedly unusual that these bills — and the deluge of opposition — are being almost completely ignored by major U.S. television news networks. A January Media Matters report claims that SOPA and PIPA have received “virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming.” The report, based on Lexis-Nexis database searches that analyzed newscasts dating back to when SOPA was introduced in October, found that ABC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC devoted a sum total of zero time to this issue during prime evening newscasts.

Some networks bore minor exceptions. In December, CNN featured a single snippet on The Situation Room that mentioned SOPA. And while Fox News hasn’t touched the issue, host Andrew Napolitano broached the subject on sister channel Fox Business Network.  Otherwise, major broadcast news outlets have responded to the possible passage of one of the most historic media and copyright bills in American history with complete, unanimous silence.

It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that the parent companies responsible for this blackout are, without exception, noted SOPA supporters. News Corporation (which owns Fox), Time Warner (which owns CNN), Viacom (which owns CBS), Walt Disney Corporation (which owns ABC and ESPN), and Comcast/NBCUniversal are all current advocates of the legislation. The media’s blatant disregard for the issue shifts from coincidental to damning when you consider the obvious relationship between the services these companies provide and what they seek to gain from SOPA’s passage.  Faced with the harrowing realization that their old business models are obsolete, U.S. media companies are attempting to quell hemorrhaging revenues and maintain market share not by adapting to the age, but by stifling online commercial and social behaviors. It’s the equivalent of burning down the house to protect one’s property from theft.

And speaking of theft, it should be mentioned that piracy is indeed a real issue.  Copyright holders should be able to protect their intellectual property and make money from their work.  The problem with SOPA is the means by which it would attempt to achieve these ends.

Here’s what’s wrong with it:

  • First, it’s unconstitutional. Our ability to access information—whether it’s in a book or on a website—is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Moreover, in its current proposed state, judges can grant a court order against sites if a copyright holder presents evidence regarding a violation, without representation from the defendant. Owners of sites accused of enabling pirated content can have legal action taken against them without even being aware of it. SOPA denies legal recourse and violates the principles of due process.
  • Second, it could prove economically disastrous. Our nascent Internet advertising industry (like Google’s hallmark AdWords program, where sponsored links germane to a user’s Google query appear next to search results) could collapse under this new model. The pro-business rhetoric coming from those supporting the bill is a joke, considering the revenue and job-killing possibilities it possesses in its current form.
  • Third, it’s crudely ineffectual. The practice of “IP blocking” is akin to relocating a store’s address so potential customers can’t find it, but this is a laughably temporary salve. Offending sites can simply create a new domain name or enlist a browser plug-in to redirect users to a new site, practices many of these sites already employ.
  • Finally, it’s sweepingly broad; it goes further than what’s necessary to combat sites peddling counterfeit goods. The specific tactics this bill proposes — pruning entries from the Internet’s library of addresses — threatens important security protocols, meddles with the core infrastructure of the Internet, and ultimately undermines the egalitarian principles upon which it was built. In the end, a few very trivial benefits will come at a huge cost to cyber security and the notion of online expression as we know it.

Both SOPA and PIPA are, at their essence, a matter of bewildering impracticality and gross political miscalculation.  This is underscored by the fact that neither the bills’ authors nor their Congressional supporters sought input from the tech community regarding possible security concerns or how its proposed tactics would affect the Internet’s present ontology. It’s yet another example of Internet law being written not with the interests of the public in mind, but rather to appease the demands of the special interest groups that fund Congress.

Government-imposed Internet filtering is a practice common in countries like China and Iran. If SOPA becomes law, the U.S. will embark on a dangerous precedent. And as extreme as it seems, the likelihood of SOPA passing through Congress in one form or another is actually quite good. Internet law has become a Congressional cause célèbre in recent years; between SOPA and PIPA — and a flurry of incoming drafts currently being written on the Hill — it’s clear this is an issue that isn’t going away. The U.S. is currently one of only seven countries that doesn’t filter Internet access. But if the recent traction of these bills is any indication, that might not be the case for very long.

 

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

From various newspapers around the country:

If there has been one chink in the Lakers’ armor this year…

Twitter’s rise, however, exposed a chink in Facebook’s armor…

“It was a chink in the armor,” says Billboard senior editor Ann Donahue.

She knows the chink in Princeton Plainsboro’s armor: House.

Notice a pattern here?

For non-Asian folks, “chink” probably doesn’t strike the same uncomfortable chord, but for me, every time I see or hear it, I wish I hadn’t. Of course in this case, it means a cleft or an opening, but more often than not, it is a racial epithet hurled towards Asians. Look up the word on Merriam-Webster Online, and you’ll find the first listed (and therefore the most common) definition is the offensive variant.

Out of curiosity, I searched for the phrase “chink in the armor” on Google and came up with a whopping 1.47 million hits. I’m certain this isn’t a vast East-wing conspiracy, but there are apparently a lot of holes in the Kevlar of the Internet.

Do white folks feel the same way when they walk through the supermarket aisle and pick up a box of Saltine Crackers? Or how about Latinos who stop for a bottle of Windex and see Spic and Span on the shelf below? I have no idea.

Now I’m not some kind of a politically correct nut who wants to eradicate all vestiges of anything sounding possibly hateful. Instead, what I ask is for people to choose not to use this particular phrase. Because it is a choice, you know?

Let me give you another example. The other day I was walking my dog, and a man came up to me and asked, “What a beautiful dog. It’s a bitch, right?” Yes, I suppose she is, in both sense of the word (sorry, Ginny, but it’s true), but that’s not the point. Words often carry more than one meaning, and it’s okay, even preferred, if you were to refer to my gorgeous German shepherd as a girl.

At the same time, I don’t want to encroach upon our First Amendment in any way. So if you consider my request as a form of self-censorship, how about doing it for the sake of originality? Just say no to clichés! Put on your best Don Draper thinking cap and create that next great catch phrase. Before you take the lazy route and declare that so-and-so has a few chinks in its armor, maybe you can say there’s “a gap in the fence.” Or “a rent in the fabric.” Perhaps even “a leak in the pipes.” You can also go fancy and be topical: “There are at least a couple of cocktail waitresses hiding in that team’s supposedly solid marriage.” Or show off your literary chops: “Boy, you just know there’s a Titus Andronicus in that corporation’s Shakespearean portfolio.”

And just for the record, “Asian in the armor” isn’t an option.

When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.

Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.

Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.