A Letter to My Congressmen Regarding SOPA and PIPA

  • By Brad Conte, January 18, 2012
  • Post Categories: General Tech

I wrote my three congressmen today to voice my opposition to a well-known pair of bills that are under consideration by the United States House of Representatives and Senate (respectively), namely SOPA and PIPA. These bills were drafted with strong support from the multimedia industry and they bring a very heavy hand into the legal realm of copyright enforcement and are very unpopular with Internet-based companies and most Internet users in general. As I write this, many websites are in the middle of a day-long self-imposed blackout in protest.

I strongly oppose these bills. I do sympathize with the fact that multimedia companies have legal and moral rights to exercise over their content and that these rights are violated by mass-piracy, but these bills take far too drastic action to protect said rights. I won't re-iterate all the reasons why these bills are bad, even in spite of recent tamer modifications.

So I wrote my three congressmen today to voice my opposition. I'd like to share the letter publicly, as a wider proclamation of my position on this issue and hopefully as an aid for anyone writing their congressmen on a political issue. It's not a master-piece, but I thought it might be helpful. I'll explain some of the reasoning and structure below. Here it is:

To the Honorable [insert congressman's full name],

I would like to add my voice of support to the millions of people who oppose [SOPA/PIPA].

I am sympathetic to the motivation of the bill. I understand that multimedia companies have proper motivation to protect their intellectual property. I support their moral and legal rights to own their content.

However, I do not believe that their efforts to protect their property should be at the expense of humanity's convenience and technological development. We the people do not exist to listen to music, we listen to music while we live our lives. Similarly, technology does not exist to play music, it exists to enable us to do what we want, some of which is to listen to music. Legislation like [SOPA/PIPA] takes a multimedia-centered viewpoint of the universe, assuming that we should hinder productivity and change the dynamics of an entire industry just to protect the convenience of one sector of that industry.

The multimedia industry has a history of resisting technological development due to their reluctance to change business models. They tried to legally combat cassette tapes, video tapes, and CDs under the pretense of fighting piracy that would hurt them. Yet those very mediums enabled them to distribute their content in better, more widely-reaching ways than before. They resist change, yet change and progress is what technology, and humanity itself, is about. Every sector of an industry faces critical changes over time, and while it can be difficult for them to adjust they should not seek legal aid pass their difficulties onto us, the common citizen. This is a capitalist society, the multimedia sector needs to adjust, not be pampered.

My request, congressman, is that your position be to protect the progress of the general public. I support the multimedia sector's desire to protect its content - once again, I sympathize with their motivation - but not at the expense of all our development. Their history and the current [SOPA/PIPA] legislation show that they are not seeking to provide us with multimedia enjoyment while we live our lives, they prefer to limit our lives to fit their existing business models.

Thank you for your time. For what it's worth, I voted for you. To protect me.

--Brad Conte

Some thoughts on this letter, in no particular order:

  • I used SOPA or PIPA where appropriate for the recipient. One bill is in one house, the other bill in the other house. Writing a blanket statement like "SOPA and PIPA", or worse yet just the popular one "SOPA", sounds more like a form letter. Who wants to get a letter that mentioning a bill that they can't even vote on?
  • I wanted to paint a big picture perspective. 1) I gave a very quick history of similar actions in the industry and their outcomes. 2) I noted that the multimedia industry is just a sub-sector of the larger industry that this bill effects. 3) I remembered international concerns; the U.S. is the country most impacted immediately, but this likely has implications for the whole world, hence I slipped in the word "humanity" a couple times. The goal wasn't to be dramatic, but to always remind them of how wide-reaching the implication would be. The overall point was that this was far too invasive an action to protect one specific sector.
  • As a general rule for opinions and debates, you should always separate general intent from specific implementation and you should separate analysis of the consequences from debate over what the consequences are. If you want to get your point across to someone, decide which perspective you're arguing and make it clear, too many conversations are completely wasted due to a missing of the minds on those simple topics and jumping confusingly between perspectives. In my letter, I opposed this implementation of copyright and laid out the consequences for what happened. If the congressmen doesn't agree that the assessments that I asserted, that's the subject for a separate, much longer e-mail. I would suggest that it's best to go for lots of detail or very little, because few things are as weak as an argument that uses just a few details strewn about.
  • It's easy to read - about 370 words and about 2/3 of a printed page, so easily readable in a few minutes. There are 5 paragraphs (the closing line isn't really a paragraph), but only 3 have the bulk of the content; it looks very digestible at a quick glance. That's all you need to give a summary of a position. This makes it easily skim-able: a) while each paragraph is unique, you could omit any one and get the majority of the argument, b) you could read the first sentence of each paragraph and still get the message (that's actually a good rule in general), and c) you could read the first and last paragraphs and understand it. Given the popularity of this topic, it's likely that if the congressman is reading my letter, it is just one of hundreds on the same topic.
  • I emphasized what impact my position would have on the opponents (the multimedia industry). Actually, I somewhat trivialized their position as simply being for "convenience". It isn't a matter of preserving the multimedia companies, it's simply about them finding and adjusting to a new business model, just like they've done several times in the past. It's important to know what's at stake in a situation like this, and I wanted to contrast humanity's technological stifling against their convenient business model. (In retrospect, trivializing it as "convenience" was a pretty strong statement to make without supporting evidence, maybe it should've been a little tamer.)
  • Similar to the above, the secondary focus of the letter was on priorities. "We the people" are not befitted in general by this bill. I said and implied that a couple of times.
  • The tone is unemotional, yet a little grave. It's a serious subject but it won't kill my grandmother, so there's no need to sound like it would.
  • The closing line ("...I voted for you. To protect me.") might come off a bit snarky, but it conveys a valid point. Congressmen are put in place by "the people" and those people are who will lose (and lose very badly) should the legislation pass. Obviously there are times where a congressmen needs to put aside the individual or short-term benefits of each person for the big picture, but I wanted to remind them that my hope is that their voice will do its best to echo ours. If I would be strongly opposed to the bill, that should count for something. I didn't make any threats (ie, "I won't vote for you if you don't oppose this"), I just reminded them of established fact. And, for what it's worth, I did actually vote for the congressmen I wrote to. (I shouldn't have to point that out, but it's an easy statement to lie about and I've seen it done elsewhere.)

Hopefully the letters will do some good. (Update: For what it's worth, I only received back form replies from a couple of the congressmen.)