Why I’m voting no, twice (and I think you should too)

Tomorrow, finally, is Election Day. One of the most excruciating and interminable campaign seasons in modern memory will in a matter of hours be behind us. But the decisions we collectively make tomorrow will shape our state, our nation, and our world for years or decades to come.

Everyone who cares at all about any of this is watching the presidential race, to be sure, but here in Minnesota the big story is two proposed amendments to the state constitution. I believe these amendments are deeply, profoundly wrong for our state, and I will be voting NO on both. Here’s why.

The Marriage Amendment

The marriage amendment would insert a sentence into Article XIII of the state constitution, which would read as follows:

“Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.”

What does this mean, exactly? Well, essentially it means that gay marriage — which is already illegal in Minnesota, by the way, and would remain illegal even without this amendment passing — would be far less likely ever to become a reality in Minnesota, at least in our lifetimes, because it’s a lot harder to change the constitution than it is to change a law.

So, why should gay marriage be legal? I’m not saying it should. (Well, OK, I am saying it should, but that’s not on the table here.) The legality of gay marriage in Minnesota isn’t even the question. By changing the constitution as such we are saying two things:

1. We don’t want to recognize legal marriages from other states where gay marriage is currently allowed.

2. We want to take away from future generations the right to decide the legality of gay marriage for themselves.

This last point is key to my larger argument about what’s afoot with both of these amendments, but I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s focus on the impact this amendment will have, specifically on Minnesota’s same-sex couples and their families.

I have friends and neighbors who are in committed, long-term same-sex relationships. They own houses together, they have kids together, they will grow old together. They are great friends and neighbors, and they are just like our family, except for the genders of the adults in the household. That difference doesn’t change the love they feel, or the commitment, or their engagement with the community. But it does affect a lot of things large and small in their daily lives and long-term futures that heterosexual couples take for granted. Buying a house together. Having kids together. Paying taxes. Getting health insurance. Sending the kids to school. Growing old together. Visiting each other in the hospital. Saying goodbye. Every step in the journey of life is met by unnecessary hurdles and challenges, simply because of who they are.

Sound familiar?

Imagine if in the 1940s Minnesota had passed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriages. Seems pretty absurd today. Well, in another couple of decades this constitutional amendment will look just as absurd — unless it passes tomorrow. Then it will endure as the law of the land. This is a civil rights issue, and on civil rights, though we have struggled mightily along the way, our nation has always moved forward, not backward. Let’s not start now.

Voter ID

The text of the question on tomorrow’s ballot pertaining to voter ID reads as follows:

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?”

Seems logical and fair, right? Many of us, in fact, are quite surprised when we arrive at the polls and we don’t need to show a photo ID already. Instead, we simply state our name and address, the volunteer looks us up in a big binder, and we sign on a line next to our name, indicating we’ve shown up to vote already, so we can’t come back again later.

Curious. Why aren’t we required to show a photo ID to vote? And why shouldn’t we be? The answer is quite simple: Not everyone who has a right to vote has a photo ID. Senior citizens, full-time students, low-income residents who don’t own a car… these are just a few of the groups of people who do have a right to vote in Minnesota but may very well not have a valid form of state-issued photo identification.

But wait, you say, the text of the proposal specifically stipulates that the state must provide free photo ID to all eligible voters. Problem solved.

Great… how will that be implemented? What is the process for these citizens to properly identify themselves to obtain the ID? Where will they go to get their pictures taken (and how will they get there)? Who will pay for all of this? (“Free” is great but this is going to cost somebody some money, probably a lot.)

So here we have two arguments against the amendment already: 1) plenty of eligible voters don’t presently have a valid photo ID, and 2) the process by which those voters would obtain said ID is not specified, nor is there any consideration of the cost of this unfunded mandate.

But before we even bother addressing those two arguments, let’s go back to the beginning: ostensibly the goal of this amendment is to reduce voter fraud, specifically in-person voter impersonation (which, after all, is the only type of voter fraud photo ID could possibly prevent). Plenty of information has come forth this year indicating this type of fraud is “virtually non-existent”. This amendment is a solution in search of a problem.

So if voter impersonation is virtually non-existent, and photo ID would place an undue burden on both voters (at least, a subset of voters, who typically tend to lean heavily Democratic) and on state and local government (and, indirectly, on taxpayers, who would need to fund the process), then what really is the motivation behind this amendment?

In fact, what is the motivation behind both amendments?

What is the motivation behind these amendments?

Up to this point I have focused on the details and implications of the amendments themselves in explaining why I am against them, but I don’t think we can honestly discuss the nature of these amendments without addressing the climate in which they were created.

In 2010, as part of the “Tea Party” movement that swept over America in the midterm elections, Minnesota wound up with its first Republican-majority state legislature in… well, as long as I’ve been alive, at least. The Tea Party movement was ostensibly, like the Boston Tea Party which inspired its name, about taxation without representation, or at least something about taxes. Small government. The kind Grover Norquist wants to be able to drown in a bathtub. The kind that stays out of people’s private lives and just does what the government is supposed to do, which is… you know… the military, and… well, that’s about it.

Given the stated motives of the Tea Party, I find it curious then (OK, not really so curious, since I’m not so ingenuous) that the only readily apparent accomplishment of Minnesota’s Tea Party legislature in the past two years has been to foist these two stinking amendment proposals upon our state, which in my lifetime was still a bastion of 20th century midwestern progressivism. (When I worked downtown I would gaze with pride every day upon the statue of Hubert H. Humphrey in front of City Hall. The statue is life-sized, because Humphrey was a man of the people.)

Neither of these amendments has anything to do with what, as I understand it, the Tea Party movement — or small-government, libertarian-leaning Republicanism in general — is supposed to stand for. These amendments are regressive, invasive social engineering at its worst. Sure, you’re letting “the people” decide. That’s democracy, right? But with incomplete and deliberately misleading information, and only a simple majority needed to pass, the Tea Party has seized upon its brief window of opportunity in the legislature to push their backward-looking agenda through before it’s too late. They’re desperately trying to save a vision of a fading “golden age” in America that never really existed, unless you were upper-middle class, white, heterosexual and healthy.

And this is where these amendments come back to the presidential election, too. This year’s election is, perhaps more than any other — even 2008 — a fork in the road the country will take for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. Are we moving forward, or are we moving back? That’s the choice we’re making tomorrow. But really, it’s a false choice. Because “back” isn’t there anymore. (And, honestly, it never was.)

To learn more about the VOTE NO movement for both amendments, please visit mnunited.org and www.ourvoteourfuture.org.

Some final (?) thoughts on SOPA/PIPA

We did it! Apparently. Whatever “it” is.

Wednesday’s “SOPA Strike” finally got the attention of Congress (and millions of confused high school and college slackers who had to endure 24 hours without access to Wikipedia, humanity’s only known source of information). In the wake of the protests, sponsors of both the House and Senate bills “shelved” the bills.

For now, they’re gone. But do you remember the end of Halloween, when Loomis shoots Michael and he falls out the window, and then when they look down a second time, he’s gone? Yeah, that.*

Before I move on to other topics (hopefully forever), I just wanted to share some final thoughts about SOPA/PIPA.

1. They’re not really dead. Sure, it’s entirely possible that we’ll never hear about SOPA/PIPA — by those names — again. But if you think the MPAA, RIAA, and their legions of highly paid lobbyists are going to let it all go this easily, you must be new here. As long as there’s any chance that anything the entertainment industry owns is being copied illegally, which is to say, until copyright law is forgotten during the zombie apocalypse (which might just be led by Zombie SOPA itself), old media dinosaurs will continue to fight for their lives.

Actually dinosaurs employing an army of zombies to fight Internet cyborg pirates sounds like a perfect Hollywood movie idea. (Copyright 2012 Scott Anderson. All rights reserved.)

2. Piracy is not really the problem. Sure, piracy happens. Sure, it’s illegal, and very probably even “wrong.” But what’s really wrong (as in, factually incorrect) is the idea that piracy translates directly into lost income for movie studios and record labels, or, as they (and their cronies in Congress) like to put it, lost jobs for gaffers and key grips and best boys and Foley artists and all of those other weirdly named jobs you see scrolling by in extremely small type at the very end of the ending credits of big Hollywood movies.

Yes, if Hollywood goes down, it’s going to take those kinds of middle class jobs down with it. But trotting these people out to get the average person to support this legislation is not unlike Prolife Across America’s billboards with pictures of babies and speech bubbles saying “I could wiggle my toes at 18 weeks!” Bear with me. Regardless of whether they’re right or wrong on the issue, both tactics are designed to appeal on a very simple, gut emotional level, and to discourage critical thought about what’s really going on, whose agenda is really being promoted, and what the implications of that agenda are.

Aside from the documented cases of entertainment industry lobbyists making egregious “errors” in their calculations of the numbers of jobs affected or the billions of dollars “lost” each year to piracy, there’s the simple logical fallacy that every pirated movie or CD equates to a lost sale. On reflection, this should be obvious: many, if not most, of the people who are pirating a movie or an album were not likely to buy it otherwise.

Then again, sometimes getting a copy of an album from a friend turns a person into a lifelong fan of a musician. A personal example: in my life I have purchased every album ever released by both Rush and Yes, which is a lot (there are 31 Rush albums and 29 Yes albums in my iTunes library right now), several of them multiple times, as each new remastered version is released. I have seen these two bands in concert a combined 8 times. I’ve bought their concert videos on VHS and DVD. In all I’ve probably spent over $2000 in the past 20 years on my Rush and Yes obsessions. And it all began because a friend made me cassette copies of A Show of Hands and Classic Yes (both of which I subsequently purchased on CD) back in high school.

So, you see, piracy is not really the problem in two ways: 1) an instance of piracy doesn’t necessarily mean a lost sale up front, and 2) copying now may lead to a lot of purchasing later.

3. Copyright is broken anyway. The other day I mentioned that copyright law had been changed to allow Disney to retain exclusive rights to Mickey Mouse. In fact, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was even referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act! I’m not against copyright, per se. I believe that the creators of original works should reserve the right to decide how their works are used and distributed, and to profit from their efforts.

But I also believe that an ever-changing law that allows that protection to extend in perpetuity, long after the creator’s death, is counterproductive and harmful to the free exchange of ideas within a society. I’m firmly against software patents for the same reason. In fact, I’m even more against software patents than I am against indefinite copyright extension, but that’s a topic for another post. But I think it’s worth mentioning that I am equally, or even more so, opposed to protectionism in my own field than I am in the entertainment industry.

4. Adapt or die. That’s it, really. As I’ve noted previously, these bills (and any future legislation like them) are not really designed to protect the interests of content creators. They are intended to prop up a dying industry that grew fat on profits over a period (specifically the 1970s through the 1990s) when their business was built upon a model that is ultimately unsustainable, especially as new means of distribution have proliferated. Combine that with what is broadly regarded as a precipitous decline in the quality of their products, along with untenable pricing, and you have a perfect recipe for the kind of collapse and failure currently underway. Don’t blame piracy; blame yourselves for overcharging for a product of low value.

P.S. Boy, it feels good to be able to link to Wikipedia again!

* You seriously haven’t seen it, and I spoiled the ending for you? Whatever. Also, would describing a portion of a film in a blog post like this have been a prosecutable offense under SOPA/PIPA?

Three years

Judging by the old posts dredged up by my new WordPress plugin, Room 34 presents On This Day*, it was three years ago today that President Obama was inaugurated.

It’s been a strange three years. The president has probably failed to live up to the (unreasonable) expectations a lot of his supporters put in him, and he’s been too willing to contort himself in vain efforts at compromise, but I think he’s still accomplished a lot, and he’s certainly better than his predecessor (although that’s damning with faint praise).

I’m supporting the president’s re-election, if less enthusiastically than in 2008. And if for no other reason than what last night’s (yet another) Republican debate proved**… they’re a sorry lot indeed.

* Yes, that’s kind of a douchey name for the plugin. I wanted to just call it “On This Day,” but there’s already another plugin (which does basically the same thing, but appears to have been abandoned by its developer) in the repository with that name. This was the best I could come up with, because I think “On This Day” is the best possible name for a plugin that does what it does.

** I’m basing my opinion of last night’s debate, like all of the others, on what I’ve gleaned from Twitter. I would never subject myself directly to watching one of these debates, because a) I already know there is no possible way I’d ever vote for any of these candidates, except possibly under extreme duress, and b) I value my sanity.

Recalling my brush with the DMCA, and how SOPA/PIPA would be immeasurably worse

This MetaTalk post concerning some erroneous DMCA* takedown notices reminded me of an episode from my personal experience that I had almost completely forgotten. It’s a good illustration of how even the DMCA — copyright holders’ current legal blunt instrument to wield against infringers, but nowhere near as powerful as SOPA/PIPA would be — can be used in harmful ways, either maliciously or mistakenly.

A geek, not a criminal

You see, I’m a geek. In particular, I’m a video game geek. I have a huge collection of 1980s video game antiquities. Over a dozen vintage consoles, hundreds of game cartridges. I even have a box full of instruction manuals and those catalogs Atari used to pack in with each game. And for a time earlier in the 2000s, I ran a website chronicling this obsession. I had meticulously compiled a spreadsheet of all of the games in my collection, and turned that into a page on the site, where visitors could (for some unimaginable reason) learn all about the contents of the bins full of 20+ year old plastic and silicon that I kept in my basement. It was harmless (if somewhat ridiculous) fun.

But, you see, there’s this thing called emulation. People have written computer software that emulates the hardware of these old game consoles. And people have also developed ways to “dump” the ROMs (programs) of those games as files that can be run in these emulators, allowing you to play long-lost vintage console and arcade games on your computer.

The nature of the Internet makes it very easy to share these emulators and ROMs. Except, under copyright law, it’s illegal. The emulators themselves are not illegal, and as I understand it, if you own the original cartridges, dumping their ROMs is fair use. But possessing the ROMs without owning the physical game is against the law, and sharing the ROMs online definitely is.

So, the copyright holders in these old games, at least the ones like Nintendo who still have lots of money and actually care about protecting those copyrights, have teams of lawyers scouring the Internet for sites that are illegally distributing ROMs. Under DMCA, they can demand that owners/hosts of infringing sites take down the infringing content, or face legal action.

And that’s where my dumb little video game collection site comes in. I never shared a single ROM on that site (and would never be stupid enough to try). But Nintendo’s lawyers didn’t bother to figure that out. They simply saw an HTML table full of the names of old video games, some of which were Nintendo’s IP, and they contacted my web host at the time, who also happened to be my former boss.

He called me on the phone (a rare occurrence) and was noticeably agitated. He couldn’t believe I was doing something so stupid. Because I wasn’t. Once I reassured him that Nintendo’s lawyers were barking up the wrong tree, his tone changed. He’s a Ron Swanson-esque libertarian, and was ready to fight back. And that’s the last I heard of it.

You’ve probably encountered some DMCA takedowns yourself. YouTube is the most common place to find them. Have you ever clicked a YouTube link, but instead of seeing the video, you were presented with a black box with a message explaining that the video had been removed at the copyright holder’s request? That’s the DMCA at work.

Much worse

Under SOPA/PIPA, YouTube itself could be taken down**. For that one infringement. Any any sites that were linking to that one infringing YouTube video could be taken down as well.

For a couple of years (up until word started spreading about SOPA), I was running another site called “Hall of Prog: A Curated Exhibition of Progressive Rock on YouTube.” Every post on that site was a link to a YouTube video. And given that it was all copyrighted music, most of the videos were probably infringing. Indeed, over the time I ran the site, a huge percentage of the videos on it (especially ones featuring Robert Fripp) were replaced with YouTube’s generic DMCA takedown message. When it started to look like SOPA might pass late in 2011, I decided it wasn’t worth taking any chances, so I took down the entire site. Now it’s just a redirect to americancensorship.org.

I was not making money on that site. There were no ads. And I was certainly not trying to deny the artists/copyright holders (which should be the same thing, but rarely are) their right to revenue. In fact, if anything, I was giving them free advertising. Yes, people make that claim whenever they share something. But I made sure to include links to both the artist and album page on Amazon.com for every video I posted. (YouTube sure doesn’t do that.)

Copyrights (and patents) stand at odds with the free exchange of information. There’s no way around that. As a creator myself, I deeply defend the rights of people who produce creative works to benefit financially from their efforts and to decide how and where their works are distributed. But those rights also have to be balanced with the greater societal good to be gained from freedom of speech and sharing ideas. For decades, if not centuries, means of communication changed very slowly, and copyright law could adapt (or not even bother to adapt) with them. But the Internet has changed everything, and old school copyright holders (especially corporate behemoths like the movie and music industries) have scrambled frantically for the past decade and a half not to lose their foothold — no, make that their stranglehold — over copyrighted content.

I personally believe copyright, as it is currently written, doesn’t work. (That’s why I release my work under Creative Commons licensing.) It doesn’t help that Congress keeps extending the lifespan of a copyright so Disney won’t lose control over Mickey Mouse. (No, seriously… Google it. Tomorrow***.) But I respect the law enough that I make a concerted effort to ensure that the things I do online do not infringe copyright, or are covered by fair use. I cannot, however, just sit back and let the entertainment industrial complex steamroll over my entire livelihood and way of life simply to fight (spurious claims of) piracy.

It’s not too late

The point of all of this is: we already have a law designed to allow copyright holders to take action (before resorting to legal recourse) against copyright infringers, the DMCA. And even that has already been shown to pose the risk of abuse. But the scope of damage the DMCA can inflict is at least mitigated such that it cannot significantly impede the free exchange of information and ideas so critical to making the Internet what it is — something that so many of us depend on every day. We cannot risk what SOPA/PIPA would do to our age of information. (See what I did there?)

Get involved! Go to americancensorship.org to learn more.

Notes

* That’s a Wikipedia link, so you’ll have to wait until after the SOPA/PIPA blackout to look at it.

** SOPA/PIPA is only supposed to apply to sites hosted outside the United States, but this would be hard to enforce, and could easily end up affecting U.S.-hosted sites as well.

*** Yes, I know Google’s “blackout” isn’t really a blackout. It was a joke.

Participate in Wednesday’s SOPA strike

Looking for an easy way to participate in tomorrow’s SOPA (and PIPA) strike? The SOPA Strike website has some code you can use to automatically load this page.

I’ve set up my own customized version, which you’re welcome to use. This does not completely black out your site. Instead, the page loads with a black screen. Then after a few seconds, the words "STOP SOPA" with a "Learn more…" link appear in white. The black box then fades to slightly transparent and animates to the upper left corner of the screen. It then stays fixed in the corner as the user scrolls around. The site is still usable, but the “STOP SOPA” message is ever-present. (Be forewarned: as I did not take the time to set up cookies, the entire process also repeats on each new page load.)

If you’d like to see how it works, I set up an awesome fake site to demonstrate the blackout animation in action.

If your site is already using jQuery, simply copy the code below into your page, ideally just after the <body> tag:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>

If you’re not already using jQuery on your site, you just need to include it from Google Code first, like this:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.7.1/jquery.min.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>

If you’re using PHP, you can even use this code to automatically make it appear at 8 AM EST and disappear at 8 PM EST. (Update the times as needed to represent your time zone, and remove the Google Code line if you’re already using jQuery.)

<?php
if (time() > mktime(8,0,0,1,18,2012) && time() < mktime(20,0,0,1,18,2012)) {
?>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.7.1/jquery.min.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>
<?php
}
?>

Note: As indicated above, I built this quickly, and have not done a lot of cross-browser testing. It’s pretty basic, but it may not display correctly in some older browsers, especially earlier versions of Internet Explorer. Use at your own risk… just like the Internet itself!