Christian wisdom and navigating SOPA/PIPA’s muddy waters

By now you’ve heard about yesterday's blackout. Some of the biggest websites on the Internet blacked themselves out (to varying degrees) to raise awareness about the SOPA and PIPA bills being debated in Congress. These bills seem, at face value, to protect intellectual property by granting the government sweeping powers to block sites that benefit from pirated or stolen material. However, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.

The problem is that the bills were written by some combination of lawmakers (who don’t have the technical knowledge to frame the problem correctly) and entertainment company lobbyists (who have a particular incentive to make the law as sweeping as possible). The resulting material clashes with other laws, demands a threshold of compliance so high that no social media company can reasonably attain it and perhaps even violates constitutional free speech principles.

Of course, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing the blackout signifies corporate America (even the Silicon Valley version) taking a stand against Big Brother. They are simply avoiding any danger and liability that might come back to bite them should anyone use their sites to host pirated material. Free speech is just one small plank in the platform that companies like Google, Wikipedia and Reddit are standing on.

For the Christian, then, we are presented with an interesting dilemma. We desire justice, and this bill seems to promote justice by punishing those who would steal. Yet we also desire freedom and oppose giving unreasonable levels of control to the government, and this bill seems to take freedom away. We desire a healthy business environment for Internet companies, and opposing the bill seems to help in protecting that. Yet we also desire a fair business environment for artists and writers in the entertainment industry, and opposing the bill can seem to challenge that.

Situations like these highlight two things Christians claim to hold dearly, but too often forget. First, they highlight the need for ethics. Though the Bible teaches excellent standards of right and wrong, our modern-day situations are complex enough to sometimes enter gray and uncertain territory. In those moments, the ability to be clear and prepared in choosing right from wrong is essential. Life will not always present easy choices. Instead, many of the choices we face are gray area vs. gray area, so when we do find a moment of clarity our ethics had better be at the ready.

Second, they display our need for wisdom. Consider the story of Solomon and the two mothers. When he suggested cutting the baby in half, it was more than a clever trick. His deep knowledge of human tendencies allowed him to expose the charlatan and name the true mother. His pursuit of truth, coupled with his understanding of right and wrong, allowed him to make the right choice in his role as king.

You and I will face many, many complicated issues in our lives. As citizens, part of our calling on this earth is to participate in upholding good and helpful laws, laws undergirded by a healthy ethical system and wise knowledge of truth. My hope is that in carrying out that calling, our good judgment and desire for truth will help point the world back to Christ, around whom ethics are centered. When you decide which side of an issue like SOPA/PIPA to stand on with all the wisdom you can muster, remember that it is one small act of worship to your true King.

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University; he also had a bunch of education in a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. E-mail him at blbartlett@gmail.com.

Comments (5)

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Ben,

Thanks for this.

I think another aspect Christians ought to consider is the framing of the ethical debate about freedom and justice. It's essentially a liberal/individualistic one, which Christians may want to reject on principle.

Instead, we may ask what the good is, what the creational norms are, and how justice is done with respect to those norms and that good.

We might still come down on various sides of SOPA/PIPA, but we will do better if, in doing so, we ask what property and freedom are for and to what ends business functions.

js
We desire justice, and this bill seems to promote justice by punishing those who would steal.

Maybe semantics, but not everything covered by SOPA/PIPA is stealing. Copyright infringement should not be confused with stealing. Doesn't mean it's OK to do, but it is different.

For example, someone posted Matt Chandler's recent sermon "God is for God" on YouTube. This was a sermon from Elevation Church's "Code Orange" event. Elevation had (at least one) of the videos taken down due to copyright infringement. Was the person who posted this Gospel message stealing Elevation's work? Or did they infringe upon Elevation Church's copyright? There is a big difference in the answer IMO, at least in this particular case.
Fair point! With that sentence I was definitely just laying a general groundwork. There are definitely different levels of conversation on the issue... some people know it at a "summarized" version where the bill "seems to" say this and opponents "seem to" say that. Others know the issue well and can have a much more involved discussion. I think my strongest desire is for Christians, like Solomon, to pursue truth first, and THEN consider the ethical implications. Too often we take shortcuts by arguing for "justice" or "free speech" or other things without fully knowing which ethical dilemma an individual situation actually presents.
I have serious concerns about the motivations and ramifications of these pieces of legislation. It seems more political than justice oriented. I'm all for paying an artist for their work but I don't see where this legislation has the ability to return royalties to the artists of specific stolen goods. I think it is more likely that it will be used as a political tool to shut down sites for other purposes and access private data that should not be accessible without a warrant. 

Real pirates already use hacker tunnels to mask their IP addresses and work through rotating server proxies so blocking specific IP addresses is going to lure teenagers who want free music into areas of the internet laced with Porn ads. NOT A GOOD IDEA PEOPLE!

The solution is more access to services like iTunes where buying music and media is easier than downloading it illegally. If the big music companies took a smaller cut they would sell more copies legally.

JMHO
Justice and freedom are fundamental for sure. SOPA/PIPA was an easy one because it really wasn't just. I think another interesting topic for a post would be other instances in which someone violated freedom by purporting to eliminate some justice that we all agree needs fixed. But this legislation was completely one-sided. Worst of all, the internet is what it is in great part because it's always been so open and free. Those big media companies are clinging to obsolete business models anyway. Good thoughts here.

 

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