The Age of Censorship has a new legislative white knight, and it comes from the unlikeliest of corners—the GOP’s (former) golden boy, the “budget guru” Paul Ryan. Rather battered after last year’s budget dust-up with President Obama, then made the symbolic nexus for a great deal of working class anger and now something of a political footnote, Ryan has managed to do something right by the American people for a change.
Yesterday, Ryan issued an official statement on highly controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), or H.R. 3261:
The internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history. It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse. I do not support H.R. 3261 in its current form and will oppose the legislation should it come before the full House.
Note the strategic use of “free enterprise” in the first sentence, following hot on the heels of the phrase “most magnificent expressions of freedom.” While Ryan is surely correct in this regard, who could possibly deny that he is politically hedging, making assurances to those on the Right that his position isn’t merely about censorship? The rhetorical and symbolic magic of the GOP lies in its ability to convince the party faithful that all things, indeed all existence, boils down to commerce. Well, Jesus was a capitalist after all, so one thing quite naturally follows another.
That being said, Ryan should be applauded for his position. However, he should have articulated more specific reasons for opposing the bills, such as SOPA’s language pertaining to private entities (Warner Brothers, for instance) and the Department of Justice, allowing them to force internet service providers (ISPs) to block domain name systems (DNS, or more plainly, the domain names of particular websites) without due process. Or Ryan could have expressed opposition to the financial force private entities and the DOJ can bring to bear on ISPs and websites—payment system blockades would not be too hyperbolic of language here—effectively crippling sites through the power of the dollar, again, without due process.
Perhaps the above is implicit in Ryan’s statement of opposition, but specificity never hurt anyone.
Those engaged in anti-SOPA activism should be heartened, however, by Ryan’s line “While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse,” for it alludes to the fact that what is at issue here isn’t merely about online piracy, but the potential for government abuse in the future.
As noted before, one must view SOPA in its totality, imagining the potentialities that exist which would allow it to be used not merely to fight online piracy, but to censor all sorts of activity. For if there is one truism in government, it is this: bills crafted to address one issue will often get perverted, over time, into the legal machinery for abuse beyond their original intent. Look no further than the Patriot Act or how archaic New York City laws were used to arrest and disrupt the Occupy protests.
It is interesting to consider how Ryan’s statement opposes Chief sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) who, naturally, thinks such thoughts are irrelevant and, indeed, that all opposition is illegitimate. Smith stated, “The criticism of this bill is completely hypothetical; none of it is based in reality. Not one of the critics was able to point to any language in the bill that would in any way harm the Internet. Their accusations are simply not supported by any facts.”
While Ryan is able to take the long view on SOPA’s censorship and free market potentialities, Smith reveals himself to be blinded, perhaps by the corporate dollars that have surely found their way into his campaign coffers. Or perhaps he sincerely believes that SOPA enforcement would be limited to just the sites enabling online piracy. Smith thus reveals himself to be either insincere or none too bright, failing to see that SOPA’s mechanisms mirror those used in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps Ryan’s opposition will lead SOPA, along with all the other anti-SOPA sentiment in congress, to the legislative graveyard where it belongs.