Op-Ed: SOPA Is a Threat to NYC’s Growing Tech Industry

January 13, 2012 at 4:00 am

Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures opposes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) for a multitude of reasons, including a belief that it will subvert the value system of the Internet. On Jan. 18, Burnham will give Congress a piece of his mind. Flickr/Esthr

Brad Burnham is the co-founder of one of New York City’s largest venture capital firms for the tech industry, Union Square Ventures, which helped produce the likes of locally-based companies Kickstarter, Foursquare and Etsy. On Jan. 18, Burnham will testify against the entertainment industry-backed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He and another NYC tech entrepreneur, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanan, along with other leaders in the tech field, will lay out an argument against this controversial bill.

SOPA essentially allows the Justice Department and copyright holders to seek court orders against websites that aid in copyright infringement.

Those who oppose SOPA believe the bill threatens the very infrastructure of the Internet (as in, they think it could bring the Internet down); poses severe risks to content-sharing sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter; and would make it extremely difficult for entrepreneurs to start innovative tech companies of the sort that are drastically altering the city’s economic landscape and influencing major initiatives, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to build an applied sciences school.

In the op-ed below, Burnham describes why he believes the bill is a particular threat to New York City, and why his opposition to SOPA is not merely an expression of his and other NYC tech professionals’ economic interests, but also his belief that people are essentially good.

SOPA poses a true threat to the New York City tech industry, which is home to over 400 Internet startups, supplies about 119,000 jobs and is aiming to rival Silicon Valley through Cornell University and Israel-Technion’s planned applied sciences and engineering school. Because New York has been so successful in attracting a disproportionate share of Internet companies, it will suffer a disproportionate share of the harm.

This image from the NYC-based website Kickstarter shows that people on the Internet donated $69,326 to fund a project featured on the site. According to Burnham, Kickstarter demonstrates that Internet users are -- in general -- generous creatures. Image from Kickstarter.

I have always believed that the entertainment industry’s effort to stop people from illegally downloading content on the Web by asking search engines and Internet Service Providers to make it more difficult for their users to find pirate sites — which illegally offer copyrighted content — was the wrong way to solve the problem. But I could never put my finger on why I felt so strongly about it. After all, the entertainment industry argues that they are only targeting the worst pirate sites and are only asking for help because those pirate sites are offshore and out of the reach of U.S. authorities.

At a recent dinner, Joi Ito, the head of the Media Lab at MIT, described the Internet as a “belief system” and I suddenly understood. The Internet is not just a series of pipes. Its core architecture embeds an assumption about human nature. The Internet is designed to empower individuals, not control them. It assumes that if individuals are empowered, they will do the right thing the vast majority of the time.

Services like eBay, Craigslist, Etsy and AirBnB are online meeting places that facilitate consumers selling and bartering directly with one another, and as such are inherently built on the assumption that most people are honest. Other services like Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress and Soundcloud are all sites that allow people to share content, and thus assume people will be generous with their ideas, insights and creations. Wikipedia has proven that people will share their knowledge. The success of companies like Kickstarter, Kiva and Ashoka, which enables the general public to fund other peoples’ create endeavors, shows that people will even be generous with their money.

This does not mean that there are not bad people out there.

All of these companies spend a lot of time and money to battle spam and fraud. The companies are simply betting that there are many more good people than bad. The architecture of the Internet shares this assumption. It could have been designed to prevent bad behavior. Instead its design empowers good behavior.

Those who support SOPA do not share this essentially positive view of human nature. I recently suggested to a friend at Viacom that one possible solution to the online piracy problem would be to have web browsers launch a pop-up with a warning. Something like “THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES HAS DETERMINED THAT THIS SITE HOSTS UNAUTHORIZED COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. DOWNLOADING MATERIAL FROM THIS SITE MAY BE ILLEGAL.” If that warning included a link where the user could find the content and purchase it legally at a fair price, I believe it would make a big dent on piracy.

My friend disagreed. He said that users would just see the warning as confirmation that they were in the right place. He cited other examples of moral failing suggesting that he believes that in general people will take advantage of others if given the chance.

I think something else is going on.

I believe that those who illegally download content are making a moral calculation and coming to the conclusion that the content industry immorally perpetuates an artificial scarcity in order to maximize its profits. So-called pirates understand that content is a non-rival good, that unlike an apple, they can consume it without diminishing anyone else’s ability to consume the same thing. They know that the content owner paid nothing to reproduce or distribute the content on the Internet. They also know that the artists who created the original content get a tiny fraction of the revenue. So pirates are making a moral judgment that the content owners are pricing their product to extract unjustifiable profits and they feel morally justified taking the content they find out there on the web.

It’s not really important whether you agree with me, that the vast majority of people are good, or with my friend, that if given the chance many people will steal.

What is important is that SOPA, the legislation the content industry is currently pushing through Congress, will not allow me to architect a service and build a relationship with consumers that reflects my core beliefs about human nature.

I am sympathetic to the content industry’s struggles with piracy, but my belief system tells me the answer is to capitalize on the great strengths of the Internet to create a healthy and profitable relationship with their users — not to sue them. No matter how strongly I believe that, however, I do not think I have the right to tell them how to run their business. Apparently, they do not feel the same way about our businesses.

The current legislation in Congress does not just create an administrative burden, it requires service providers who have built wonderful businesses on a deep conviction about human nature to change their relationship with their users in a way that subverts their core values.

Unfortunately, this legislation may pass. The content industry has invested heavily to get it through. Legislators need to hear from every one of the employees at the city’s 400 Internet startups and from every entrepreneur and every user who understands that the Internet is more than a set of pipes. They need to hear that innovation and economic development comes from empowering users, not constraining them.

Click here to learn about SOPA Opera, an app that shows you which legislators support and oppose the bill.

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