Wednesday, January 18th, 2012
Social media are all about the spread of information through networks of individuals. In other words, WOM: people talking.
But what happens when these conversations are curtailed, constricted and controlled?
There has been a fierce debate raging over the past few days – both online and offline – about the relative pros and cons of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in America, and it could have big implications for the future of the WOM industry – not to mention our everyday online lives.
The bill, originally presented to the United States House of Representatives in October 2011, is intended to pre-empt the problem of Internet piracy in the US by targeting sites that promote and enable the sharing of copyrighted material.
So far, so simple.
But what SOPA and its sister bill PIPA (the Protect IP Act) have done is effectively turned a debate on piracy into a pitched battle between two cornerstones of Liberal ideology: free speech and free markets.
The disagreement pits Internet giants such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia against businesses such as television networks, record labels, book publishers and the film industry. The latter want to be able to protect their copyrighted material from illegal distribution over the Internet, while the former wish to enshrine the right of their users to upload and consume content according to their will (within certain legal parameters, of course).
Wikipedia has today shut down its English language services as part of a 24-hour protest to the bills, which it says could “fatally damage the free and open Internet”. Many other websites have followed suit.
So why does this matter to us?
Although the vast majority of law-abiding citizens agree that Internet piracy is A Bad Thing, many equally believe that it is not the place of government – any government – to control and restrict what they can access on the Internet.
On the other hand, companies, brands and individuals who produce copyrighted material do not want to see their goods trafficked and bandied about (either on the internet or in the so-called ‘real world’) by others who are not them.
Which puts us somewhere in the middle.
As a word of mouth company, we are committed to the spread of information and ideas around the world. Equally, we are committed to our clients and their very real need to keep their goods and services protected from those who wish to abuse them. The question here, then, is whether the proposals put forward by SOPA and PIPA will help protect both agendas. This is a question that does not as yet have a clear answer.
What is clear is that by limiting the number and type of interactions a web user can experience, the checks and controls proposed by these bills may inadvertently stifle the sort of innovation and creativity that is such an integral part of the online world.
But then again, SOPA and PIPA have got people talking – and this itself may help drive change where it is most needed.