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RIAA chief hits back at Wikipedia and Google over SOPA protests

By | Published on Thursday 9 February 2012


The boss of the Recording Industry Association Of America has lashed out at Wikipedia and its allies with a retrospective response in the New York Times to last month’s day of protests against the proposed anti-piracy bills then being considered in US Congress, both of which are now off the agenda and will need some serious re-editing to satisfy newly nervous congressmen desperate to avoid having any link to policy that causes popular websites to cut some or all of their services for 24 hours.

Arguably SOPA and PIPA were already derailed before the Wiki protest, as concern over both became increasingly vocal late last year, and as even the Obama administration came out in opposition to elements of the anti-piracy bills. But the decision by Wikipedia boss Jimmy Wales to take the English language edition of his online encyclopaedia offline for 24 hours in a very public protest against the two bits of legislation certainly ensured there was no way either bills could proceed in their current form.

Entertainment trade bodies like the RIAA had invested an awful lot of time into getting SOPA and PIPA to the point they were at when things began to untangle late last year, and so are understandably pissed off that political support for their anti-piracy proposals, which included a fast-track system for securing injunctions to force copyright infringing websites offline, were pushed off the Congressional agenda quite so quickly. And RIAA CEO Cary Sherman reckons the way Wikipedia, Google et al achieved that feat was, frankly, undemocratic.

Now, some would argue that the blocking of legislation drafted by a very small group of people, as a result of the protests of an awful lot of people, was actually highly democratic. But, Sherman argues, the ‘awful lot of people’ were only protesting because of misinformation delivered to them by Wikipedia, Google and their friends, despite said web firms presenting themselves as the trustworthy good guys, the defenders of neutrality on the internet. It wasn’t democracy but “demagoguery” the RIAA boss says (big word there, I know. Fortunately Wikipedia is online today, so you can look it up).

The real problem, Sherman continues, was the C word: Censorship. Any efforts to stop people from publishing copyright infringing content on the internet would result in widespread censorship of the web, the anti-SOPA/PIPA brigade at least implied (some blatantly stated it), which makes it unsurprising that so many members of the public signed petitions and forwarded the protest emails the anti lobby had provided to their political representatives. But, Sherman argues, the censorship argument is bollocks. Well, he didn’t use those words, but it’s what he meant.

Sherman: “Since when is it censorship to shut down an operation that an American court, upon a thorough review of evidence, has determined to be illegal? When the police close down a store fencing stolen goods, it isn’t censorship, but when those stolen goods are fenced online, it is? Wikipedia, Google and others manufactured controversy by unfairly equating SOPA with censorship”.

There were other “hyperbolic mistruths” too, he adds, for starters: “They also argued misleadingly that the bills would have required websites to ‘monitor’ what their users upload, conveniently ignoring provisions like the ‘No Duty To Monitor’ section”.

Sherman insists that prior to the protests most congressmen had been convinced by the economic and ethical cases for cracking down on online piracy, after months of researching the impact copyright infringement was having on the entertainment sector and those who work in it, and that while “no legislation is perfect”, SOPA and PIPA were not the dangerous freedom of speech denying bills that many have claimed in recent weeks.

And, he says, “when Wikipedia and Google purport to be neutral sources of information, but then exploit their stature to present information that is not only not neutral but affirmatively incomplete and misleading, they are duping their users into accepting as truth what are merely self-serving political declarations”.

The tone of Sherman’s article isn’t going to win over any new friends in the anti-SOPA/PIPA community, and the claim that the US news networks – which support the anti-piracy measures – decided not to fight Wiki et al head on because they “draw a line between news and editorial” and would never “present editorial opinion as fact” damages his credibility somewhat (has he never seen Fox News?).

But, nevertheless, a lot of Sherman’s points in the piece will find favour across the music industry, even among some of those in the independent community who aren’t especially good friends of the major label trade body. And while a fair few industry types and artists, both in the US and beyond, were themselves concerned about some aspects of SOPA and PIPA, many of them are also uneasy with some of the claims made by the wider anti brigade, in particular the implication that any kind of crack down on piracy whatsoever has to automatically result in censorship of the internet.

Though, even if you agree with Sherman wholeheartedly that Wiki, Google and their friends were guilty of distributing considerable misinformation in the run up to their big day of protest, it is worth wondering why the public at large is so willing to trust the word of the big tech companies (most of which – though obviously not Wikipedia itself – are as ruthlessly profit driven as any other commercial etity), while the word of the big music companies and film studios is frequently treated with suspicion and contempt, despite these companies being behind many of the artists, shows, movies and cultural phenomena that provide so much joy to the world.

Arguably the major labels and RIAA are at least partly to blame for this fact, firstly because of poor decision making by senior execs when the web first started to really take off a decade ago, and secondly because those companies and their trade bodies continue to operate a corporate PR strategy from 1994 – focusing all their efforts on schmoozing a few key political decision makers and influential financial and political journalists.

It’s ironic that while, when it comes to consumer-facing marketing, the music industry has led the way in using social media, when it comes to engaging the world at large on other issues, to win trust and support in wider public debates, the music industry’s activity is almost zero. Which is a big part of why the tech giants win the public, if not always the political debate on piracy issues.

So, food for thought. And here’s Sherman’s piece as an appetiser.

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