[StBernard] The Unintended Consequences of SOPA, Driving with a Phone, and Patents

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Fri Dec 16 09:10:48 EST 2011

The Unintended Consequences of SOPA, Driving with a Phone, and Patents

Dec 15, 2011 12:14 PM EST 2 Comments
By Michael J. Miller

I'm an optimist, so I believe most of our elected officials and regulators
are really trying to do the right thing. For instance, reducing piracy,
protecting intellectual property, and making driving safer are all great
goals, but I'm far from convinced that recent proposed rules in these areas
will actually have the results their backers want. I'm worried that with
SOPA, stricter patent laws, and a ban on mobile phone usage in cars, we'll
instead end up with unintended consequences that may well be worse than the
status quo.

Take the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Almost everyone knows that the
common practice of illegally downloading music or movies is wrong. So I
understand why the movie studios and similar companies support this act.
There has also been a proliferation of sites selling goods with fake labels
and even medications that aren't what they say they are. But there are
already laws that deal with these issues, such as the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act's "takedown" provisions.

It seems to me that the music industry's most successful fight against
piracy has been the development of newer models that give consumers
convenient access to the content they want at reasonable prices. iTunes,
Amazon's MP3 store, Pandora, Rhapsody, and Spotify probably did more good in
fighting piracy than all the legislation. The large number of Netflix
subscribers proves that similar services can work with video, as well.

Meanwhile, I worry that the proposed legislation will actually result in
more government control, more censorship, and less innovation, as argued by
the big Internet companies. This is especially worrisome at a time when the
U.S. and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
are pushing for countries to "promote and protect the global free flow of
information" online.

I can see the big American search companies doing more to reduce links to
illegal content, though that can be often hard to define. (Hence the
takedown method currently enforced.) I doubt that any algorithmic search
will be perfect, though. It's too easy to imagine a world where the big
search companies decide that content search is too risky and block such
searches altogether. That would only result in the growth of other, likely
less reputable, sites with similar content. In the end, that helps no one.

On a very different matter, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
just proposed a nationwide ban on the use of personal electronic devices
while driving. It's easy to see the good intentions here; we all know that
talking on the phone and, even worse, texting are terribly distracting for

Many states already ban phone calls without hands-free devices and texting
while driving. Unfortunately, I see these rules routinely ignored and it's
hard to conceive how new rules would be more effective. Instead, it's just
likely to turn more people into law-breakers.

The real solution here is likely to come from technology: hands-free,
voice-controlled mobile devices. I've tried out a bunch of the current
products, but they are mostly unreliable, tricky to use, and far from
ubiquitous. We need the mobile phone industry and the automotive industry to
work together on standards that turn every phone into a hands-free unit
easily and we need voice control products to improve.

That won't solve all the problems, because any way you do it, talking on the
phone is going to be distracting. Then again, so is listening to the radio,
eating and drinking, and using a GPS-whether standalone, built into the car,
or part of a mobile device. As a society, we're really not going to outlaw
mobile phones, GPSs, or drive-through lanes at fast-food restaurants, so
it's up to us as individuals to pay more attention.

Then let's turn to patents. As a spectator sport, it's been interesting to
see how just about every mobile phone company is suing someone for patent
infringement, and I'm generally in favor of reasonable patent and copyright
enforcement. One problem is that, generally, it takes years for courts to
determine whether a company has actually violated another company's patents
and if so, what that is worth. I agree that it takes too long, it is often
too hard to gauge infringement, and too many bad patents are issued.

So now, many companies are turning to bodies like the International Trade
Commission to block the sale of products they think are infringing. I
understand their frustrations, but isn't this the kind of thing that is
supposed to be decided by courts? Wouldn't penalties after sales instead of
injunctions before sales be better?

All of these areas can be taken to extremes. We could solve the problem of
Internet piracy by shutting down any website that links to a site that hosts
illegal content, even if that means shutting down most of the Internet. We
could stomp out patent infringement by simply allowing anyone who has a
patent to block the sale of any product they think infringes on it. Of
course, since there are so many patents, that would certainly delay every
new product and might stop people from selling anything designed in the last
20 years. We could prevent mobile phones from distracting drivers by simply
making mobile phones illegal, or at least making it illegal to obtain a
mobile phone if you have a driver's license.

Of course, we won't actually do any of these things because the consequences
are so dire, but the regulations being pushed move us closer, without
considering the consequences.

More information about the StBernard mailing list