Archive for January, 2012

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill being considered by the US House or Representatives that was introduced on October 26, 2011 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The Senate has their own version of the bill, called the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act”, aka the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), introduced on May 12, 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

The goal of these bills is to protect intellectual property markets and the jobs and revenues in these industries.  Proponents of the bills say they are necessary to enforce copyright laws in the digital age, especially when it comes to foreign websites. Although very similar, there are slight differences between the two bills, mainly just in the specific wording.

One provision that SOPA has that PIPA doesn’t is the requirement of search engines to remove “foreign infringing sites” from their indexes. PIPA, on the other hand, requires greater court intervention against accused websites. This makes SOPA slightly more controversial, as it is seen by some as outright censorship, but critics have other problems with both bills.

Both proposed bills would force US based payment services, such as PayPal, to refrain from doing business with foreign sites that are thought to be “dedicated to infringing activities.” This is similar to what happened with the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks, when PayPal cut their access for donations.

Both bills also include what is called anti-circumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to inform people on how to access blocked sites. This can be interpreted to require websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit , whose content comes from the users, to make sure that such information is not posted on their sites, or they could face legal action. This would be nearly impossible for such websites to enforce.

Another provision turns internet service providers into vigilantes, allowing them to block access to websites if the have “credible evidence” that they are distributing copyrighted material. They also give immunity to these providers if they are found to have wrongfully taken action against a website. The potential for abuse and censorship here is overwhelming.

A provision that sponsors of both bills have agreed to drop, due to outcry from many technical experts, allows for service providers to use a technique known as DNS (domain name system) blocking. DNS is, basically, the phone book that attaches a domain name with it’s IP address. Critics say DNS blocking would undermine the infrastructure of the internet.

Because it deals with the world wide web, and it extends the powers of enforcement to go after foreign websites, this issue is not only relevant to the US, but to people all over the world.

An alternative to these bill has been offered that still addresses the issue of intellectual property rights without a lot of the provisions that critics find offensive. The “Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade” or OPEN Act, has been introduced to both the House, and the Senate. This would expand on a the Tariff Act of 1930, which allows the International Trade Commission (ITC) to take action against the distribution of physical good violating intellectual property laws, to include “unfair digital imports or unfair imports that are digitally-facilitated by foreign rogue websites”. Supporters of SOPA and PIPA say this legislation would be ineffective, and so far, it hasn’t gained much support in either the house or the Senate.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem that enough consensus will be reached in the House to pass SOPA any time soon. PIPA, however,  seems much more likely to go forward, and is expected to go to a vote in the Senate on January 24.

The White House has issued at statement on this matter saying that it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” suggesting that Obama would veto any such bill if it were to pass. However, Obama has also threatened that he would veto the “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) that he signed on New Year’s Eve. Clearly, any statement from the White House cannot be taken seriously.

An online blackout is planned for Wednesday, January 18 in protest against these bills. Sites taking part in the blackout – including Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, Destructoid, I Heart Chaos, all sites under the Cheezburger Network and others – will display a page warning people of the potential consequences of these bills passing. Also, has a petition, with over 1.5 million signatures (and counting), that you can sign to let members of Congress know about your concerns over SOPA.

SOPA and PIPA have the potential to change the internet as we know it. The unclear wording allows for abuse which could censorship of any website that is seen as a threat. This is not to mention the enormous cost and effort it would require to enforce such legislation. If you value a free and open internet, then please take action against these misguided bills.

UPDATE: Barack Obama refuses to support SOPA, although, Congress will revisit the bill next month. PIPA is still expected to go to a vote on January 24.

Also, there is evidence that the main supporters of the bill, are some of the same people who created, distributed and promoted much of the pirating technology in the first place. They owned the copyrights, made it easy for people to share files, and now support legislation which would allow them to make millions off copyright infringement lawsuits. This video by Micheal Mozart explains:


Free will, the idea that people are free to make decisions that are not simply the result of their physical reality has been debated among philosophers for centuries. The opposing view, determinism (specifically, causal determinism), holds that if, hypothetically,  it were possible to know every detail about the condition of the universe in the present, and all the laws of nature that govern it, then one could predict the future conditions down to the last detail.

The debate reminds me of a scene from the Matt Groening cartoon, Futurama, where Bender is sent flying through space and runs into God, which is apparently just a cluster of stars that can talk. Even though he is a robot, Bender has questions about the nature of free will.

Bender: So, you know what I’m going to do before I do it?

God: Yes

Bender: What if I do something else?

God: Then I don’t know that.

The existence, definitions, and compatibility of these ideas have been debated for thousands of years. In modern times, people have used science – including genetics, neuroscience, and quantum physics – to try to shed light on the debate. This issue has far reaching implications on science, religion, and also justice, as it raises concerns over moral responsibility for a persons actions.

It was believed by some geneticists that mapping the human genome would show that all behavior, beliefs, and desires could be traced directly to our DNA. It seems, however, that the Human Genome Project, now almost complete, has not shown enough genes to allow all of the psychological diversity of our species.

Some of the most notable challenges to free will have come from the field of neuroscience. In 2007, John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, conducted an experiment that raised a lot of interesting questions. He showed volunteers a screen flashing a succession of random letters and asked them to press a button, whenever they felt the urge, with either their right or left hand, and to remember what letter was being displayed at the time that they made the decision. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of volunteers as the decisions were made.

While the decision was typically made about a second before the button was actually pressed, a pattern of brain activity was found to predict the decision up to seven seconds before hand. It seems that our brain can make a decision before we are even aware of it. This led researchers to question whether our decisions are under our conscious control, or if they are the direct result of our brain activity.

Critics of the research point out that the brain activity only accurately predicted which hand was used 60% of the time. Although this is significantly more than chance would predict, it is certainly not enough to prove that the brain is making a decision before conscious awareness. Others question to what extent this type of simple decision can be generalized to real world decision making.

My beef with the research is that it doesn’t take into account the idea of the sub-conscious mind. Is it not possible that some of us make certain decisions sub-consciously before we are aware of it, and that this could account for the brain activity that seems to predict the decision?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is an acclaimed neuroscientist,  director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” In an interview with with Scientific American, he discussed many of the issues involved with studying free will from a neuroscience perspective.

One of these issues is that of an emergent mind. Emergence is the idea that complex systems can arise out of several smaller, more simple interactions. He argues that you can’t understand the overall function of the brain by simply looking at the neurons and their interactions. One must consider the big picture, including the effect society has on a persons thoughts.

Gazzaniga also makes a distinction between mind and brain. He makes a good point that while brain activity can affect a persons thoughts and actions, in a bottom-up way, it can also work the other way around. An example he gives is of patients suffering from depression getting help through talk therapy (top-down) and with medication (bottom-up).

Another branch of science relevant to free will and determinism is quantum mechanics. At the level of particles, events can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. This uncertainty undermines the idea of determinism, however, it does not necessarily allow for free will. If our decisions are simply a result of quantum randomness (as ridiculous as it may seem), then they are not exactly free.

An interesting thing about this debate is that the extreme views, on both ends, lend themselves to religious ideas. At one end, free will, according to some, requires an immaterial soul. At the other end, theological determinism implies that all events are pre-ordained by some kind of deity.

A Muslim Matters article, that explores many of these issues from a scientific and religious perspective, argues that these two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They say that not enough is known about the nature of consciousness to rule out the existence of a soul, and that free will doesn’t rule out the possibility that God has knowledge of events before they occur.

One problem with this whole discussion is that it usually boils down to people simply arguing over semantics. It seems to me that if we could all come up with agreed upon definitions of free will and determinism, then we wouldn’t have as much to debate, or at least we could understand the arguments of others much more clearly.

An opinion piece in the New York Times goes into the semantics behind the debate, asking what it means for a decision to be free. Does this mean that a choice can’t be predicted, or that it isn’t caused by anything physical? Also, if it isn’t caused, wouldn’t that make it random and, therefore, not free? A big question is: what is free will free from? Is it simply freedom from outside constraints, or from the laws of nature? There are also several types of determinism, including causal, theological, logical, biological and cultural/psychological.

What’s really important about this discussion are the implications it has about moral responsibility. If people have no control over their own decisions, and they are instead simply the result of our neurons firing, then how can we be held accountable for our actions. According to some research, what really matters is that we believe that we have free will. A Reason Magazine article goes into this idea further.

The research shows that if we induce people to believe that they have no free will, by having them read passages that encourage a belief in determinism, they are then more likely to cheat in experiments and act aggressively rather than in a helpful way. These results are interesting because they suggest that our will can be changed by exposure to certain information. If changing the way we think about something can affect our actions, does that not suggest that our will is free?

Free will is something that most of us take for granted. The fact that science can show that, under certain circumstances, the activity in our brains can affect our decisions before we are even aware of having made one, does not prove that these decisions are not our own. In fact, there is also evidence that our thoughts can affect our biology as well, such as the placebo effect and the success of cognitive behavioral therapy.

The reality is that our decisions are a result of a wide range of influences, including quantum randomness at the particle level, neuronal firing in the brain, our genetic predispositions, and all environmental influences on our lives from conception to the moment a decision is made. The sum of all these is what makes us unique human beings, and whether you simply call it the self, or a soul, it is undeniably us. In all practicality, our decisions must be our own. Determinism might certainly set limits on what decisions are possible, but in the end, any decision we make is ultimately our own.

30. Tom Vek – Leisure Seizure  29. The Horrors – Skying

28. Megadeth – TH1RT3EN  27. Primus – Green Naugahyde  26. Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song  25. White Lies – Ritual  24. The Roots – Undun  23. Justice – Audio, Video, Disco 22. Metronomy – The English Riviera 21. Miles Kane – Colour of the Trap 20. R. E. M. – Collapse Into Now 19. Yuck – Yuck 18. Arctic Monkeys – Suck it and See 17. Man Man – Life Fantastic 16. Tom Waits – Bad as Me   15. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost   14. Opeth – Heritage 13. Radiohead – The King of Limbs   12. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar 11. Battles – Gloss Drop 10. tUnE-yArDs – whokill 09. Foster the People – Torches 08. Puscifer – Conditions of my Parole 07. Sleeper Agent – Celebrasion 06. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light 05. The Strokes – Angles 04. Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You 03. The Black Keys – El Camino 02. Mastodon – The Hunter 01. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain

(All images and videos are used without permission. Please, don’t sue me)