Evan Soltas
Jan 17, 2012

On SOPA

Political science and economic perspectives on new legislation

SOPA wikipedia
As I write, several sites--Wikipedia and Reddit, to name a conspicuous two--are gearing up to go dark tomorrow. Kaput. Off. Closed. 

Why? This is about SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which aims to curtail theft of traditional media works (read: music, movies, and text in books, magazines, and newspapers). In this pursuit, opponents say, the copyright protections threaten to cripple the dynamism and synthesis of the modern Internet.

David Carr of The New York Times gives us a good overview:

SOPA deals with technical digital issues that may seem to be a sideshow but could become crucial to American media and technology businesses and the people who consume their products. The legislation is the rare broadly bipartisan piece of apple pie. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to resume hearings on it this month and all indications are that it will approve the measure, setting up a vote in the full chamber. The Senate is also expected to vote on its own version of the bill when it returns from the holiday break.
Virtually every traditional media company in the United States loudly and enthusiastically supports SOPA, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the rest of us. The open consumer Web has been a motor of American innovation and the attempt to curtail some of its excesses could throw sand in the works of a big machine on which we have all come to rely.
From an economics perspective, this appears to be a question of concentrated gains (for traditional media corporations) and diluted losses (for everyone else, but rather concentrated for Internet corporations), with what appears to be a net social welfare loss, although there appears to be a strong case that, given the network effects and chaotic growth of the Internet, the net loss could be highly significant.

I also see an interesting political science perspective. From my reading of history, political systems tend to handle cases of potential concentrated gains-diluted losses rather poorly, particularly those with weak checks on government power or on the ability for interested parties to gain influence. The Internet, as I see it, though, threatens to change that calculus, because the reason why the "diluted losses" group could never respond effectively is because the opportunity cost of protest would have exceeded the individual loss due to the legislation. The Internet has drastically reduced those opportunity costs, and thus facilitated protest when the interested parties are spread. This could indeed get interesting.