How to stop SOPA: Don't build it.

I've been following the news about SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, for the past couple of weeks. Yesterday there was an interesting development when 83 of the most prominent engineers responsible for creating the Internet signed an open letter voicing their opposition to SOPA. This in and of itself is hardly surprising. Since the law was introduced anyone with a shred of technical acumen has stated that a.) It will not work. The law will not hinder piracy. b.) It will be hugely detrimental to the normal operation of the Internet.

But, this made me think. If a law like SOPA were to be passed, how would it be implemented? How would it be enforced? I think it's safe to say that at some point somebody is going to have to write some code or possibly build some hardware. Maybe some of these technologies can be bought off the shelf from, say, China or North Korea, but at the very least someone is going to have to administer the servers that make this all work. Who's going to do that? The politicians? The lawyers? Entertainment industry executives? No. The task is going to fall to the very people who have been the most vocal opponents of the law from the start. What if they refuse?

If SOPA were to pass and your job would require you to enforce its provisions, you should quit. If you currently work in IT or software development for a company advocating for the law, for a lobbying firm that is promoting the law, for the campaign of one of the representatives sponsoring or supporting it, you should quit. The organization paying you is actively trying to use your skills make people less free. There's a perpetual shortage of talent in the industry, right? Surely, you can find another job that does not require you to be an instrument of government oppression, that does not ask you to dismantle the infrastructure you've spent your career building and maintaining. I know it may seem like a drastic measure, but freedom, as we are so often reminded, is not free. If a free Internet is important to you, you have to be willing to make sacrifices to defend it, or it will cease to exist. Be happy that you can fight for freedom on economic terms instead of having to put your life on the line.

If your current position would not be involved in complying with SOPA, but you're in charge of hiring people, you could let it be known that any experience that included building technology for the enforcement of SOPA would immediately disqualify an applicant from getting a job at your company. (Assuming, of course that they participated willingly, not the folks I just told to quit their jobs in the previous paragraph.) I don't think this would be unreasonable or unfair. Deliberately building something that nearly every expert in the field has condemned as a detriment to the Internet represents such a staggering lack of professional judgement that it should disqualify you from ever working again in this profession. As engineers we spend most of our education and careers focusing on what we can build, and very little time thinking about what we should build. Unlike doctors or lawyers we (mostly*) do not have professional licenses or ethics boards to report to. This does not mean we cannot act unethically, or that we should not consider the social ramifications of the things we make. An engineer who would build the infrastructure to make SOPA a reality should be treated exactly like a doctor who would willingly commit malpractice. He should be blacklisted from the profession.

I know this isn't a foolproof plan. If there's enough money on the table, someone will come out of the woodwork to take the job. If the task receives enough scorn from the rest of the industry, though, you can be sure that it won't be the best and the brightest working on this. Anything that results will be that much less effective for it. Remember politicians and lawyers can bloviate and scheme all they like, but ultimately it is engineers who have to bring their plans into existence. We are the gatekeepers between dreams and reality, and when it comes to the politicians and executives, they need us far more than we need them.

* Of course, there are Professional Engineer (P.E.) licenses. But for the majority of Internet related work I believe they are not required. For what it's worth, I do happen to have a PE and work in a field where it's required. It is expected and understood that you would refuse to design something for a client that would be harmful or unsafe for the people using it. Indeed, you would lose your license (and thus your livelihood) if you did so.

Originally published 2011-12-16 08:09:24