How The SOPA Will Stifle Soccer In The United States

By Elizabeth Cotignola

Globalization. Fandom. The Advent Of The Internet.

In his apartment in New York City, Marco, a devotee of the Church of AS Roma, sits hunched over his laptop, mesmerized by the match streaming from his screen - his beloved Giallorossi are playing. Then, just as Aleandro Rosi plays the ball to Pablo Osvaldo, his stream dies. He curses, then regains his composure. No matter, he thinks - I’ll check the Twitter feed. He logs on to Twitter, but finds that his timeline is marred with black lines that prevent him from gathering any information. “Strange”, he thinks, “let me check what people have posted on Tumblr.” However, when he attempts to access his Tumblr account, he is informed that the site has been dismantled in response to “various complaints of third-party copyright infringement.” Just then, he receives a text from his friend Daniele, lambasting the referee for disallowing Osvaldo’s spectacular - but allegedly offside - goal. Frantic, he checks YouTube for a video replay - and finds that YouTube, too, is gone. With all his avenues of access exhausted, Marco misses the match.

Imagine a world without the internet; a world without soccer. As post-apocalyptic as this state of affairs may seem, it could very well become the present reality in the United States - and, quite possibly, the rest of the developed world - as a result of proposed legislation which has the potential to silence the internet - and, in consequence, stifle the growth of soccer in America.

The average soccer fan spends their time preoccupied with fixtures, results and transfer rumors. Few contemplate the impact of intellectual property law on their favorite pastime. Yet there is one legal development that even the most politically apathetic fans will soon find themselves unable to ignore.

As you read this, a rather disquieting bill is making the rounds on Capitol Hill in Washington. Three weeks ago at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans joined together to voice what appears to be overwhelming support for this legislation, which would criminalize much of the activity that occurs online.  The bipartisan bill, which looks poised to pass by a landslide, would establish major new powers for corporations intent on establishing and maintaining a monopoly on copyrighted material. This bill, called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, is purportedly intended to thwart music and movie piracy by empowering copyright owners to shut down websites that contain content deemed to infringe upon their copyrights.

Under the current practice of America’s intellectual property regime, copyright owners, such as television networks and film studios, contact the administrators of websites to request that pirated material (such as videos, for example) be removed from said website. Under the new regime, copyright owners would be empowered to demand that banks, Internet service providers and domain name registrars, among others, cease to do business with websites that they believed enabled or facilitated copyright infringement or piracy. With this new regime in place, they would be able to, for instance, go straight to the company which provides YouTube’s domain name registration and demand that the YouTube website be taken down in its entirety - and if the registrar resisted, the copyright owners would be legally entitled to take the registrar to court.

The new regime would, in effect, be tantamount to a carte blanche for censorship. What is even more alarming is that the chilling powers of censorship that would be handed to private entities under the SOPA are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The bill would also alter the relationship between the government and the basic structure of the internet:  it would allow the Department of Justice, acting on behalf of aggrieved copyright holders, to filter domain names and block entire websites in the name of preventing piracy. The SOPA also incorporates a separate bill which would make it a felony to stream videos or mp3s of copyrighted films and songs. In short, the SOPA would significantly impede access to all that we currently enjoy on the internet.

The bill has met with various reactions. Some have summarily dismissed it as this generation’s Y2K scare, while the entertainment industry has lauded the bill as the greatest thing since color television. The most ardent reaction, however – and deservedly so – has been the outright alarm expressed by the technology and communications industries. Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, for example, condemned the bill as “draconian”. Schmidt is not alone in his zealous criticism. In an effort to raise public awareness of the bill, Tumblr (the platform which plays host to A Football Report) released a statement which claimed that the SOPA would “betray more than a decade of US policy and advocacy of Internet freedom by establishing a censorship system using the same domain blacklisting technologies pioneered by China and Iran.”

Such claims, while perhaps sensationalist, are not without merit. The SOPA, if passed, would allow the American government to blacklist any website found to contain infringing material, impeding access to said sites using domain name filtering techniques similar to those employed by the authoritarian governments of China and Iran. What, then, is “infringing material”? Infringing material is anything determined to be in violation of copyright. This could include, for example, a picture posted on one’s Tumblr page, a few posts by users in a web forum or on a social networking site such as Twitter, or even links sent in an email. The short answer is simple: “infringing material” is anything the government deems it to be.

This new legislation, if enacted, would eviscerate the very essence of the internet as it has existed since its inception. Access to information, sharing, openness, expression, participation: these are the primordial values of the internet age. Globalization, driven by factors such as technology and deregulation, has increased the interaction and links between individuals, groups, companies, communities and countries. How does this relate to soccer? What does internet freedom have to do with Fernando Torres’ apparent inability to score for Chelsea, Alessandro Del Piero’s imminent retirement, or where Brian Ching will spend next season? As globalization has affected the way international commerce is conducted, it has also affected the world’s most popular sport. The onset of globalization - and the barriers broken in consequence, made possible by the linkages the internet creates -  has been coincident with the evolution of soccer as a truly global phenomenon.

In the past, the most definitive example of soccer’s global reach and popularity was the fact that the entire world would come together once every four years in the month-long celebration known as the World Cup. Now, with the widespread availability of sophisticated technologies such as satellite television and streaming video, on any given day, a match between two clubs in England, Spain or Italy may be enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people simultaneously in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or the Americas – essentially, by anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection.  Those who cannot watch the match can follow the agony and the ecstasy in real time on Twitter or Tumblr or read about it only hours later on countless websites or blogs. If you’re a Red, and you cannot get yourself to Anfield, the Kop is still within arm’s reach. If you bleed Blaugrana, the Camp Nou and your fellow Culés are at your fingertips. One need not sit in the Curva Sud at the San Siro to support Milan. In today’s digital age, the internet links people in unprecedented ways. Few would refute the assertion that these two developments - globalization and the exponential growth of the world’s game - are interrelated. 

Yet one of the final frontiers of the game’s globalization remains the United States. Admittedly, we have witnessed the increasing participation of Americans in the world’s collective love affair with soccer as a result of events such as the United States serving as the host country of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the staggering success of the USWNT and, most recently, the unprecedented accomplishments of the USMNT at the 2010 World Cup. However, the story of soccer in America has largely been one of marginalization.

In his book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, economist Franklin Foer explains how distinct attitudes among the American public toward the phenomenon of globalization itself may help explain why some in the United States embrace soccer while others actively - and loudly - hate the game.  Foer claims that the so-called “anti-soccer lobby” has “a phobia of globalization”. In contrast, Foer asserts, fans of international soccer in the United States believe “in the essential tenets of the globalization religion.” They consider themselves to be part of a “culture that transcends national boundaries”, much like soccer itself. What does this all mean, and how does this relate to a piece of legislation intended to regulate the internet and prevent piracy?

The advent of the internet is what has made the growth of soccer in the United States possible. Major League Soccer has made massive strides in recent years, but the fact of the matter is that soccer is still largely perceived, in the mainstream, as the pastime of either immigrants or the upper-middle-class or even more pejoratively as a preoccupation of elitist Europhiles. Soccer has yet to truly capture a position in America’s prevailing hegemonic sports culture, dominated as it is by baseball, basketball, and that other form of football. Even those who themselves live the game are cognizant of this fact; for example, Benny Feilhaber - a former American export - astutely made reference to this reality in an interview upon his return to the United States. He lamented that while MLS had grown in his absence to become an “outstanding, competitive league”, the culture of soccer in the United States was not yet “comparable to the other big sports in terms of fan appreciation, TV and whatnot.” For those who truly love - and live - the game, the internet has filled the void left by the various other outlets of popular culture: newspapers, magazines, television. It stands to reason that once the SOPA silences the internet, it will also stifle the fledgling American subculture that is soccer. 

Soccer is a narrative. People internalize a particular performance or event from among all that happened in a ninety-minute match as the content of this narrative, and these selected fragments, these individual personal narratives, coalesce to elaborate a collective story of the world’s game. In today’s globalized world, it is in the mundane of everyday life that soccer culture is primarily perpetuated, expressed and experienced. The spectacle and pageantry of match days and the reality of soccer teams’ performances and results still play an important part of this experience for many supporters, but do not comprise the primary aspect of soccer culture that affects individual notions of identity and belonging. These are initiated, reinforced and contested via interaction with others that form part of the international community that is the soccer fandom. Once this interaction is made impossible - once this community is divided, dispersed, and destroyed by the intangible blockade of internet censorship - what will become of this narrative?

Postscript

The SOPA is slated for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee this Thursday. This past Saturday, more than 70 representatives from leading technology companies and advocacy groups met to establish an action plan aimed at thwarting its passage. This action plan emphasized the need for Americans to call their Representatives early in the week in order to make known their objections to this bill. Visit www.americancensorship.org to be briefed with talking points about the bill and find out how to reach your Representative. Other initiatives include petitions and public awareness campaigns. To find out more about the SOPA or what you can do to get involved in the fight against it, visit www.fightforthefuture.org or email David Segal, spokesperson for Demand Progress, at david@demandprogress.org.

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