Why do unions support SOPA?

Why do unions support SOPA?

I was supposed to speak on a panel about SOPA this evening with the Northeast chapters of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It was to serve as an educational discussion for local members, but at the national level, both unions have already officially endorsed SOPA. I spent the weekend preparing remarks, but the panel has been postponed, or possibly canceled, on account of AFTRA and SAG failing to provide representatives to discuss the bill. I can only hope this is an indication that they’re reconsidering their public support of one of the least American bills to gain serious traction in Congress, as a number of other companies have done in the face of public backlash.

The thing is, unions should never have supported this bill to begin with. At their best, organized labor is one of the most surefire ways to create a more equal, sustainable instance of capitalism. They are the people who brought us the weekend and ended domestic child labor, a more recent phenomenon than we might like to admit. In recent times, the middle class has been under siege for years by politicians erasing taxes on the rich while simultaneously cutting benefits for the poor. Unions have the power to make things more fair, and as a result, they’re under constant attack.

But at their worst, unions can behave as reactionary organizations that respond purely to the financial interest of their members, or even just their employers’ commercial interests, at the expense of the general good of society. It appears that disruptive technology we know as the internet is putting them in this position. National unions’ stances on net neutrality, and now SOPA, have created a faultline between progressives who cherish free speech and unions focused on short-term paychecks rather than long-term investments in democratic communications. The Occupy movement has worked together with organized labor, for example, but wouldn’t support this train-wreck of a proposal for government censorship (see the comments on the AFL-CIO's blog post mentioning SOPA as but one example).

Granting the government the power to create arbitrary blacklists and extralegal censorship will cost society at an order of magnitude more than union members stand to benefit. SOPA would break the internet and set up a censorship regime that circumvents existing legal channels to serve one industry’s financial desires. Bastardizing the technical infrastructure of the internet and forcing payment system providers and search engines to cut off service to an organization without a trial is extralegal, and a misuse of these channels. One thing that’s been somewhat lost in the uproar over SOPA is that legal channels are already in place to enforce anti-piracy law. As Ethan Zuckerman pointed out to me, US law already permits seizure of domestic domain names that are used for piracy, and 150 domains were seized in November, 2011 alone. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act is already US law, and entertainment companies have spoken to its effictiveness.

The Writers Guild of America West has realized some of the implications of SOPA, and, although they’re still concerned about piracy, has since come out against the bill in meetings with members of Congress:

They discussed concerns with the bill’s implications for competition and an open Internet. Although the WGAW strongly supports combating piracy, the competition, First Amendment, and due process concerns the bill creates must be addressed.

But other, larger, unions remain behind the legislation. I can't be the only person who was surprised to see several top unions, including the AFL-CIO, SAG, and AFTRA on the list of organizations supporting SOPA. I’m not sure how SOPA or PIPA would help the actual members of these unions, other than further enrich their employers’ CEOs. But the AFL-CIO stands up for it.

I sympathize with the members of these unions, because it’s plausible that online piracy is hurting their livelihoods. But a Congressional Research Services report found that the absolute number of jobs in the entertainment industry has actually increased since 1995, and disputes some of the other numbers the entertainment companies and unions are using in their letter to Congress.

It’s also possible that many of these jobs are going away because their employers have based their businesses on the sale of physical goods, and haven’t done a great or timely job of adjusting to obvious consumer shifts in consumption of content. Their very industries, represented by the trade groups these unions have aligned themselves with, such as the MPAA and the RIAA, have relied for years on re-selling Star Wars and Beatles albums to the same customers every time the physical format changes. Digital content has brought about the era of the hit single and unlimited streaming, both of which break from the “you must buy this entire album” business model. This is a natural market shift that has nothing to do with piracy. I think it’s important to consider that the disruptive technology these trade groups are railing against isn’t just filesharing. They’ve failed to adapt to simpler, legal shifts in their customers’ preferences. (For more on this point, see Why the Movie Industry Can't Innovate and the Result is SOPA, recommended by my friend Ted Fickes).

Even with regards to piracy, the Director of Business Development at Valve, which sells expensive, pirate-able computer games as convenient digital downloads, said it best: "Pirates are underserved customers.When you think about it that way, you think, 'Oh my gosh, I can do some interesting things and make some interesting money off of it.'" Rather than partner with entertainment trade groups to stifle innovation at unprecedented scale, creative unions should be working with web startups to enrich the emerging creative-as-producer business models.

Besides the financial arguments around piracy and business models, SOPA could hurt unions’ ability to organize and negotiate in other, more profound ways. To quote Matt Browner Hamlin, a Senior Fellow at Citizen Engagement Lab and former Deputy Director of New Media at the SEIU:

The internet is a medium of communication and organizing that is evolving in ways we can't predict. It is a democratic medium where you don't have to be a massive corporation to have your voice heard. We should promote the ability of workers to engage in this transformative medium and empower them to find ways to use it to help themselves on the job. SOPA would fundamentally change how the internet works and thus disempower workers from creating and sharing ideas, from organizing for their rights, and from having a counter-balance in the fight against the boss.

Another friend and SEIU veteran, Joaquin Guerra, points to echoes of this same debate from 2007, when the Communications Workers of America stood in the way of discussion on net neutrality. It was another recent example of a union standing on the wrong side of free speech to benefit their employers, and I guess, by trickle-down economics, themselves:

The topic was Net Neutrality, the idea that the Internet should not be controlled by telephone and cable companies. It was nowhere to be seen at the conference. The reason, according to a conference organizer, is that "the unions" have a problem with Net Neutrality.

"The unions" in this case is basically one union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Like it or not, CWA is the key to whether the Internet will continue to be open, or whether the telephone and cable companies will turn it into an instrument under their control. The prospects are not encouraging.

To put it more strongly, given the influence the union wields with Democratic legislators in Congress and in state houses, the prospects are downright discouraging. Democrats who traditionally take progressive positions on issues are also Democrats who don't want to cross organized labor. When there is a conflict, labor wins. And if labor is allied with the company, it's no contest. CWA and, to a lesser extent, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), could free Democrats to vote for a free and open Internet. But in a demonstration of the Stockholm syndrome, they won't.

I do sympathize, because disruptive technologies are truly disruptive. They can eliminate entire categories of employment virtually overnight. As my brothers and I emailed about what to get each other for Christmas this year, it struck us that we no longer needed to spend much on entertainment gifts. We get most of our music from Spotify, our video from Hulu and Netflix, and all of our book requests were followed by, “Used is fine. Get it for a couple of bucks on Amazon.” My brother joked, “How anyone makes money in this country in 10 years is beyond me, but I suppose we can all buy handmade jewelry and chocolates from one another.”

It’s not clear where the next gravy train is. If I knew the answer, I’d go start that company. Plenty of people ARE starting these companies. But an important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t un-invent technology. John Philip Sousa’s railing against the gramophone and the entire concept of a recorded music industry didn’t prevent those technologies from defining the 20th century. But, importantly, it also didn’t eliminate the allure or the market for live music.

The answer to disruptive technology is not to employ the United States government to enact SOPA. Rather than help their companies collect collateral damage on younger companies that have made the internet a prosperous, profitable, and relatively open creative space, unions should look seriously at alternatives to SOPA in fighting online piracy. I doubt that regulation is as viable a solution as creating compelling legal businesses around the globe, but if a law must be passed, the OPEN Act might be a better place to start. You can read some pros and cons for this approach over at TechDirt.

SOPA is good for one group, and one group only: members of Congress raising cash from the entertainment and now, by necessity, tech industries.

Members of the unions still supporting SOPA (the AFL-CIO, SAG, and AFTRA) should make it an internal issue, immediately, to persuade their leadership to take their name off this bill.