Sunday, January 22, 2012

SOPA/PIPA-Related UPDATE: We're Still Doomed (International Edition)

Just because SOPA and PIPA are over doesn't mean our online rights are safe by any means, and in fact are being assaulted on all sides and in all nations. The same entertainment industry groups that think you people are deluded fools for complaining about the "not-dead-only-resting" bills are pumping insane money and influence into trade treaties negotiated in absolute darkness (thanks entirely to the American representative at the talks) that not only will cram all of their goals into every corner of the free world, but also would also effectively override the existing laws of all the countries who sign (including the US) in the process, all because they're afraid you might steal a movie.

This is a disease that the MPAA, the RIAA, and the IFPI want to make into a pandemic. And it might actually happen.

Read up on these. They're guaranteed to ruin your day...but hopefully they'll also motivate you to never stop defending your rights.

ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, EFF link) has been in the works since 2007, and representatives of the executive branch (i.e. the White House) have already signed it, although Sen. Ron Wyden (the same man who is behind the saner OPEN Act and a potential fillibuster if PIPA hits the floor) claims that if ACTA is ratified without going to the Senate, it might violate the Congress' Constitutional authority to regulate international trade, and thus it might be possible to throw it out on a technicality. "The executive branch lacks Constitutional authority to enter a binding international agreement covering issues delegated by the Constitution to Congresses' authority, absent Congressional approval." The European Parliament hasn't signed yet, but intends to before the deadline.

TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement; EFF link): Again, we're dealing with leaked drafts here, but this treaty takes everything that terrified you about SOPA and PIPA and adds an extra dollop of scary clown on top of it. Do you live in a country that passed laws which went out of their way to try and avoid all the mistakes of US intellectual property laws in the Internet age? Well, this is a direct assault on your country, because every last one of those mistakes is entrenched in this treaty, and if signed, they will be compelled to comply.

The real jawdropper from the EFF brief: Countries are obligated to "treat temporary reproductions of copyrighted works without copyright holders' authorization as copyright infringement." "Temporary reproductions"? They're talking about time-shifting, aren't they? The right guaranteed to us in America after the Sony vs. Universal Supreme Court case? Forget about rolling back the tech industry to a pre-Internet state, they want to roll it back to a pre-VCR state.

How is any this acceptable on any level and compatible with the things Americans claim to stand for? It isn't, which is why it's being done in absolutely secret non-disclosure way in the hopes that we won't even know what hit us until it's far too late. The only conclusion I can come to: The entertainment industry is openly hostile to individual liberty and national sovereignty. They must be stopped at all costs. The old business models are dying in a hurry, and the moguls figure if they're going down they're taking the rest of us to Hell with them. If we don't draw a line in the sand, they're going to keep taking and taking until they've taken everything, because the past decades have proven they won't be happy with anything less than everything they've ever asked for.

The tech industry--which on these issues is our industry--needs to stop rolling over for these shenanigans before they roll into a grave. And the next time you catch somebody making a self-congratulatory speech about how progressive Hollywood is, you owe them a punch in the mouth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Oh. My. GOD.

Quick update to hang a lampshade on a Techdirt headline from this afternoon:

Senate Minority Leader McConnell Tells Reid/Leahy To Kill PIPA

On the one hand, this could actually be the point of no return that we've been looking for. On the other hand, you're asking me to believe in an election year that (at least on this issue) Michele Bachmann is more progressive than Al Blankety-Blankin' Franken, and damn it, that's how brain aneurysms get started!

(x-post from G+ (with additions))

Strike's Over...Time For Phase Two

The Internet strike against SOPA/PIPA has been called a success, even by media outlets who tried to ignore the issue before, but one of the most baffling things was that pretty much the vast majority of the confirmed "flips" in Congress were on the GOP side of the aisle, with a clutch of Democrats clinging to the idea that this bill (and presumably their Hollywood campaign money) can be saved.

These are Rep. Mel Watt's (D-NC 12) words during the infamously lopsided SOPA hearing, the one during which they proved what a bad faith law this was going to be by choosing to only invite one witness for the opposition (as reported by HuffPo).
"In my experience there's usually only one thing at stake when we have long lines outside a hearing as we do today, and when giant companies, like the ones opposing this bill, and their supporters start throwing around rhetoric like, 'This bill will kill the Internet,' [...] That one thing is usually money."
If his words possibly stand for the suddenly inflexible Democrats who stuck to their guns during today's action (and Watt made a point of saying "I don't think the bill is dead" before the end of the day, so he obviously hasn't budged an inch), they've fatally misread this situation as a case of one set of companies vs. another set of companies. As with anything involving intellectual property and the Internet, it's the legal arm of the American entertainment industry vs. everybody outside of their bubble. That's you. That's me. That's everyone we know.

I am deeply ashamed of Chris Dodd, who threw decades of public service goodwill away with a nasty snarl against us and our motivations that you wouldn't expect from a guy who claimed to carry a pocket Constitution with him every day, but is depressingly familiar to netizens as being within the capability of someone who heads the MPAA.  A man who sells his soul to one of the most widely reviled industry groups in the United States has surrendered his moral right to call anybody a "corporate pawn." So yeah, he's dead to me.

I put a gadget in my sidebar which links to a Demand Progress action site, where you can send your reps a pledge to vote against anybody who backs SOPA/PIPA, regardless of your party affiliation. This isn't anywhere near over, and if we go back to sleep now we're guaranteed to lose everything we gained in credibility today. Dodd's statement snidely refers to strikes and blackouts being Internet "pranks". Let's prank a few jerks out of office.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THERE'S A SCAB READING THIS PAGE!

If you are reading this message on January 18, 2012, then you're one of those clever kids who figured out how to defy the picket line in the anti-SOPA/PIPA Internet strike. Be assured that the Internet will not pelt you with rotten eggs for your insolence, and "the boys" with lead pipes will not be around to break your routers (or your kneecaps).

Since you're already here, could you do us a solid anyway and take a look at the page you were supposed to see today? It is kind of important, seeing as how the continuing health of the American Internet is still hanging by a thread. Don't let the ridiculously optimistic headlines from the weekend fool you; plans are still in place to try and push all this garbage through the legislative process. These bills are not dead, only delayed.

Both your Senator and your House Rep need a reminder that the will of the people should not be taken for granted...especially during an election year.

And for you (a-HEM) outlanders: sorry that you had to get caught up in local politics. Just remember that American IP law sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.  We're fighting this for everybody.

One more note before bedtime (or after the blackout): if you made @herpderpedia's retweet list, you should be sad right now.

Monday, January 09, 2012

A Look Back (And To The Side): Oak Hollow Mall

(Warning: this is strictly op-ed noise about hometown stuff. You may be bored to tears, and (as usual with these long pieces) I can't promise coherence, but you can't say I didn't warn you.)

Oak Hollow Mall, which opened in the summer of 1995, is a 1,262,440 sq. ft two-floor enclosed mall built for $75 million on the north end of High Point, NC. The initial proposal was approved in 1988, but massive grass-roots opposition centering around environmental concerns killed the plans for a few years. The city council went out of their way to bring CBL & Associates back to the table, and their modified plan is what threw its doors open that summer. And today, barring an end-of-the-game miracle, it's pretty much done for.

Oak Hollow Mall
(source: daysofthundr46 via Flickr, CC 2.0 license)
To go back and read the local news articles in the years immediately after the mall opened and comparing it to the current reality is an exercise in watching a city's heart being broken. There was a story in the paper at the time of the opening about a woman bursting into tears of joy after a sneak preview tour, and I remember saying to myself, "Oh, this cannot be good." A mall or (God help me) a Walmart is going to save the bacon of a city? The expectations were so hyperbolic, it seemed like wishing on a star.

You see, Oak Hollow Mall wasn't just going to be a retail space when it opened, but was a symbol of a community desperately trying to escape the shadow of Greensboro and Winston-Salem as the weaker partner in the Piedmont Triad community. The enthusiasm for development of Oak Hollow could imaginably be chalked up to 1990s aspirational spending--the same enthusiasm led a community group to try (and fail) to get a major league baseball team--and for the first few years it seemed to work fairly well, with first-year sales beating the projected goals at at $85 million, and pulling in $134 million at the end of 1999, with occupation at 95% capacity. Eventually, they put in a 7-screen theater and a Target for people who still bore a grudge against Walmart. A multilane road was laid down for easy accessablity so that all you had to do was make a turn off of Main Street and it was a straight shot from there.

There were casualties of course. In the space of a year it killed off the city's already-wobbly Westchester Mall once and for all, which, as the Triad's first enclosed shopping mall (opening in 1970), killed off downtown retail. The circle of life and all that. And in what should've been a bad omen in retrospect, once-ubiquitous regional fixture Will's Bookstore walked away from Oak Hollow over a dispute about plans for an outparcel Barnes & Noble.

A number of things have eaten away at Oak Hollow, not the least of which were the continuing strengths of Greensboro's Four Seasons Town Centre and Winston-Salem's massive Hanes Mall, both of which maintained an occupancy rate in the high-to-mid 90s even as the recession kicked into sudden-death overtime, and both of which had the hit-the-offramp-and-you're-there access from major interstate highways that Oak Hollow didn't get for a long time. However, a few friends and family (and this is strictly second-third-and-fourth-hand, you understand) seem to think that the point where Oak Hollow's fortunes took a fatal turn was when CBL started jacking up the rent on the stores once the century turned. Whatever the reason, the smaller merchants began walking once the initial leases ran out. The recession didn't help, of course, but all of this started before the bank bailouts and the real estate collapse.

But the major body blows were still around the corner.

A few of the major departures of the 2000s can't be pinned on bad mall planning or bad mall management. Steve & Barry's, the clothing store which replaced the financially troubled Goody's, went bankrupt. Same with Circuit City, which was run into the ground by corporate management who, in a cost-cutting spree, didn't see the sense in keeping the experienced people around who actually made the store's reputation in the first place. But The Gap came and The Gap went in just a couple of years, and since some people think a mall that can't float a Gap store is a bit funky, that was one failure you can't really shrug off. Likewise, when Dillard's, still a reasonably healthy chain overall, turned their two-floor store into a bottom level clearance outlet in 2009...well, you can't hang that on Dillard's. Anybody who has read deadmalls.com more than a few times got a sinking feeling from that maneuver.

Oak Hollow Mall - JCPenney
(source: daysofthundr46 via Flickr, CC 2.0 license)
And then, at the beginning of 2011, JCPenney decided to massively scale back its longtime High Point presence from a two-level store to a Catalog Center desk at the back of a uniform shop. It couldn't have come at a worse time for CBL, since during the previous year the group had finally put the mall up for sale for $15 million at a time when the occupancy rate had dropped to a dire 56%. Thanks to the ongoing turmoil (and with some prodding from the mayor) High Point University picked up the property for $9 million, retaining CBL to manage the property. The University, which has been on a runaway real estate spree in recent years, announced that they intended to run the mall as a retail property in the short term, since they had as much of a stake in the city's economic health as the rest of us did. Pretty much all of the uni's acquisitions eventually turn into another piece of University, and thus would join the furniture market showrooms which comprise a massive part of downtown as yet another section of the city cut off from the general public, so it was a necessary reassurance. All that was before 2011's other bombshell dropped: Sears decided to cut a few under-performing locations after Christmas, and Oak Hollow is on the chopping block. After April, or maybe as soon as February, Belk is the last anchor standing, and even they seem to have one eye directed towards the open road. The writing is on the wall. I'm going to sing the Doom Song now.

When the baseball campaign fell through--primarily due to the failure of a bond issue that would impose restaurant taxes to build a stadium which wasn't even guaranteed a team at the time--one of the leaders of the group who had busted his hump trying to hustle up support rather petulantly said "There is no plan B," flatly stating that we blew it. That's us, you understand, not a strategy (MORE TAXES!) with its own built-in backlash. It's as if the "influential" part of the community hasn't got a clue what the rest of us are actually like. In a similar fashion, when "the mall war" was declared over last summer, an editorial in the High Point paper, after bringing up the lack of a focused advertising push as a potential culprit, decides the primary reason that the mall has failed is that "for whatever reason", we didn't shop there. The column, which didn't reassure me at all by including "get over it" in the headline, mainly because (as stated before) a sale to HPU was guaranteed to have a jeering section trailing behind it, ended with a rather sour "Our long community mall wars are over. Live with it."

That "for whatever reason" is the most troubling part of trying to scrape together something substantial about the Oak Hollow decline and fall. If you actually talk to people who live around here, everybody's got a theory, so when you run a search through ten years' of online newspaper archives, why is it that the best you can find is "You people are the reason the rest of us can't have nice things"? Yeah, I get it, it's a retail center, and if people don't show up the merchants pack their bags, but why did it  happen the way it did? What turned the so-called jewel in the crown into Carolina Circle Mall II: Electric Boogaloo? Aren't you even curious?

Somebody who actually knows what they're doing (and before you ask, I'm pretty sure that isn't me) needs to be curious enough and brave enough to perform a malltopsy, asking the hard questions so that maybe the community can learn from mistakes and figure out what the future needs to look like. Jabbing fingers at somebody else's rib cage can be fun in the moment, but come on, that's the reason we can't have nice things.

Your thoughts are always welcome. Please throw them at the comment field to see if they stick.