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Opinion: Why you should be angrier about NDAA than you were about SOPA
Opinion: Why you should be angrier about NDAA than you were about SOPA Exclusive
January 24, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

January 24, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Exclusive, Design, Business/Marketing

[Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield discusses the National Defense Authorization Act, which he says is far more dangerous than SOPA/PIPA ever were. This editorial was originally written for Game Developer's upcoming February issue.]

By now, everyone's aware of the U.S. House bill SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. And the related PIPA -- the Senate's PROTECT Intellectual Property Act. Internet denizens correctly rallied against these bills, which had vague, overly-broad language that would have given the U.S. Government and rights-holders the means to block certain web sites deemed to be "primarily dedicated" to copyright and trademark infringement.

These would have bypassed due process, and given the U.S. Government and giant media corporations the power to be judge, jury, and executioner over what U.S. internet users are allowed to access online.

A Greater Threat

The internet blacklist pretty much united everyone in game development against them (the ESA aside), and after a recent day of internet blackouts, voting on them has been postponed. But another, far more dangerous bill passed in late 2011 that could limit our freedom of expression in an even grander scope than SOPA/PIPA ever would.

No citizen voted for or against this law. Much like with SOPA, that opportunity was not afforded us. The article in question is the National Defense Authorization Act, and it is the greatest threat to intellectual and personal freedom in America.

NDAA is not new -- the bill has been in effect in various forms for almost 50 straight years. But the big deal is some new language that was added to Title X, Subtitle D of the bill, specifically sub-sections 1021-1022, which I encourage you to check out for yourself. (Alternately, you can read's excellent article, “Three myths about the detention bill.”) This new language allows for a) the indefinite detention without trial of anyone, American or otherwise, who is perceived to support terrorism, and b) an expanded view of what the war on terrorism entails (which can now be continued until “the end of hostilities”).

The ability to imprison anyone without trial or appeal -- potentially indefinitely -- should make you angry enough. But before I lose my audience, let me get straight to how this relates to you. Think of a game like Counter-Strike. One team plays as the terrorists, one as the counter-terrorists. In this game, Valve allows players to take on the role of terrorists, and encourages them to win. Is this supporting terrorism? You and I understand the concepts of fiction and role play, and the power and intrigue of imagination. But does our government? Or more specifically, does the next demagogue with sagging poll numbers to prop up feel like understanding? We’ve seen how understanding lawyers and the media are when a kid goes to jail for murdering someone -- but oh, they’ve also played GTA before.

Laws have a very curious tendency of serving whomsoever has the authority to twist them, and governments worldwide have been in a mad race to remove freedoms in the name of national security. Under the new NDAA laws, Counter-Strike’s designers could absolutely be detained until such a time as the concept of “terrorism” no longer exists, which, as things are going, seems a long way off.

Here's an example from another angle. Tahadi Games has brought the Korean FPS Point Blank to the Middle East. Now, I think of the Middle East as the birthplace of much of ancient culture and religion, as well as a place where there are lots of thinking, reasoning humans like you and I. Others though, think of the Middle East as a hotbed of terrorism, and would swear up and down that giving Arabic-speaking countries access to an FPS is akin to training up a legion of terrorists. Politicians and pundits claimed that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York were aided by the perpetrators playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. So what of an FPS? If you sell your game in Arabic-speaking countries, are you at risk for detention in America? The incredibly vague law leaves that possibility wide open, should someone have played your game before committing some malicious act. And given how pervasive game playing is, wouldn’t they have, if you made a good one?

Could it happen here?

While these laws haven't yet been used to the effect described, they could, and that should definitely scare you. Former U.S. Marine Amir Mizra Hekmati was recently sentenced to death in Iran for aiding in the development of Kuma\War, which lets players engage in “real life” scenarios, both from the news and from potential military actions, including an episode titled “Assault on Iran.” The Iranian government says Kuma\War was funded by the CIA to help "manipulate public opinion in the Middle East," and promote pro-U.S. sentiment. Hekmati’s sentence has not been carried out yet, but Iran is pushing forward. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, says that "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."

And that is precisely the power that NDAA’s new language grants our own government. What if Hekmati had worked on a game like Kuma\War that showed what might happen if Iranian forces landed on U.S. shores? We could legally give him nearly the same treatment we're now decrying.

How many of our games allow players to see war from both sides, even if briefly? Quite a few, really. And while President Obama says that he definitely won't use this against Americans, even though he could, who's to say situations won't change? And even if he doesn't, what if the next president in line does?

If an official’s word alone were good enough to protect us, there wouldn’t be a need for laws in the first place. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to this now, as laws are being introduced, before it’s too late to get angry -- because it’s already been done.

It may seem like this couldn never happen to you, and that even if it did, someone would surely come to your aid, or raise a red flag. But that’s why this is so insidious: how will you prove that an injustice has been done when there is no possibility of trial or appeal? Even the McCarthy trials, though ridiculous and dangerous, were actual trials.

Freedom To Develop

As of 2011, video games are protected as free speech, but that only goes so far as the letter of the law, as SOPA, PIPA, and NDAA prove. When laws are so open ended, an official with an agenda could cause serious damage to our industry, and to America at large. With the outcry against SOPA and PIPA, we could be on our way to winning back the freedom of the internet—now let’s fight for our freedom of expression and humanity.

If we want to make games that address complex issues like war and military occupation, we need to fix NDAA. I urge you to write to your representatives, or do whatever else you can to fight it. The blackouts worked – we represent a large percentage of the technology mindshare of America, and that grants us a lot more power than we sometimes realize. Remember though; even if we fix NDAA and kill SOPA/PIPA, we only get back to square one. There's lots more work to be done to support our industry and our society's freedoms. But if we don't fix these problematic laws, we all lose. Every one of us.

(Thanks to Will Bunnett and Kris Graft for their contributions and consultation.)

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agostino priarolo
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Valve. Exactly.

carlo man
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Urge Your Reps To Support HR3785 "To Repeal Section 1021 Of The NDAA 2012 (Indefinite Detention of US Citizens)" Today. I've Heard It Goes Into Effect In March. I've placed a link to Open Congress Org So You Can Contact Your Congress Person Easily. Please Share That Link

J Spartan
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@Brandon, well done on highlighting the pink elephant in the corner of the room. I had wondered if it was that much of the games industry(AAA) is involved in the war 'p0rn' type games, so that was why the 'outcry' was disproportionaly high for SOPA/PIPA etc when compared to the what the real world implications of that last NDAA, already passed into law, are.

I think all these aspects have some kind of convergence. It is all about control ultimately, either on-line or in your actual life(if you are unlucky enough to ever be labeled 'a terrorist'). Probably we can build a better world than this, either virtual or in the real? Are we brave enough to try though?

E Zachary Knight
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I opposed the NDAA as well as the Patriot Act from the beginning. I tried my hardest to get people to understand just what freedoms they will (not might) lose if those two bills passed. Yet most every time I spoke to people about this I hit the brick wall of "terrorists". The Federal government has done a wonderful job of brainwashing the people of the US against Terrorists that they could do almost anything if they simply say it was to stop terrorists.

I think getting people interested in the SOPA opposition was far easier solely because there was no such specter engrained in the minds of the US citizens. Had SOPA been written and proposed as a way to fight terrorists rather than pirates, the effort to defeat the bill would have been much more difficult.

This is the sad state of affairs we live in. However, I will not stop fighting.

Ian Uniacke
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Mark Taylor
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Cogito ergo terrisum.

Matthew Mouras
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Fabulous article. This is well said: "If an official’s word alone were good enough to protect us, there wouldn’t be a need for laws in the first place."

I hope readers will take the issues you raise into consideration. While I heard a brief piece on the recent changes to NDAA on the radio, its effects hadn't really sunk in. I'll be contacting my elected representatives now. Thank you.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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If I might add another tie to game development, this kind of law must make it harder for US-based studios to recruit international top-talent. Heck any US-based business, not just video games. Im thinking twice before crossing the border nowadays, even just for a short trip. No habeas corpus, thats scary.

Brad B
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Thank you for writing this article, it would make Thomas Jefferson proud.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Bart Stewart
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No. This has nothing whatsoever to do with "the art and business of making games." It's a brazen misuse of the editor-in-chief's power to decide what gets published to inveigh against some personally disfavored political thing.

I argue against this particular case on both its merits -- attempting to paint a moral or judicial equivalence between a democratic republic like the U.S. and a theocratic dictatorship like Iran is not only incorrect but insulting -- as well as on the general principle that publishing overtly political editorial content (of any flavor) in a magazine or web site whose broad range of customers look to it for information on a scientific or technical subject like game development is bad business.

Others are free to disagree, but I'm tired of the political boosterism that has infected this otherwise valuable resource. Leadership starts at the top -- please take the anti-NDAA, pro-Occupy, anti-abortion, pro-state's rights, free-Mumia political opinions of whatever kind somewhere else, and let Gamasutra once again focus on providing the solid *game-specific* content for which it has been rightly recognized.

John Zucarelli
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Doug Poston
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Having been visited by Homeland Security because of a gaming related project I worked on, I would have to disagree with you in this case.

The NDAA does effect the gaming industry.

EJR Tairne
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No, don't do that. Art doesn't happen in a vacuum. Not everyone has to agree with an article, or even read it. The more context the site gives, the better.

As I often say, the social responsibility of art is to sharpen and broaden the audience's perspective, not to dull or constrict it.

If anything, a lack of attention to the issues that inform them is a major reason why so many videogames are so terrible.

warren blyth
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I agree that this piece (clearly labeled "Opinion") stretches its relevance, but I strongly disagree that it his nothing whatsoever to do with the art and business of making video games. (You are essentially saying that politics are irrelevant to this website's goals.?)

Even though an Opinion piece should be free to rant about whatever it likes, this piece clearly draws the connection between: a game developer due to be executed for working on a game that is being labeled propaganda - and a government that has just made it legal to indefinitely detain game developers, if they should decide the work of these developers are contributing to terrorism. These two events are clearly related to the art and business of developing video games.

I feel they chose to make this an opinion piece so you could dismiss it as "not news" or "incorrect." but not so that you could dismiss it as irrelevant to the stated goals of this website.

Dave Smith
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not only is it relevent, but NDAA has even more potential to destroy the game industry in AMerica than SOPA does.

Antonio Murray
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First off, its labeled 'Opinion' yet that don't matter. This isn't "political" this is real shit. Something a tool like yourself will never understand. Really, who in their right mind gives a damn if its doesn't have to directly do with interactive entertainment. This is no game. This is life and your part of it if you live in America whether you like it or not.

Matthew Mouras
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Bart - I appreciate the thoughts in your comment, but I disagree with a number of them. Games can be a great escape, but their development cannot escape the influence of politics. Your political opinions have been revealed in a number of your thoughtful posts on this forum. I wonder if it would be worthwhile for you to collect them into a more organized opinion piece? Would you be so incensed if Gamasutra's recent articles supported your own views? If you refuse to see the connection or you simply do not agree with the political opinions of authors on the site, there is another simple solution: don't click the link. For better or worse, the internet gives us a lot of choice:

Ali Afshari
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Thanks for the article, Brandon. It has been infuriating that SOPA and PIPA opposition swelled while the NDAA flies off the radar because we read "terrorism" and just assume it has a rightful place within our laws because it's meant to protect us. Today's radical is tomorrow's terrorist.

Alexander Jhin
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@Bart -- I too felt this article is a little "off topic" for Gamasutra.

However, video games are becoming more interconnected with the larger world. For example, the Game Developer Magazine ed. offhandedly said he supported restrictions on porn access for children. I took him to task for that and he claimed it was unrelated and had nothing to do with games. But, the recent Supreme Court case around limiting violent games access for children was decided partly on case law for limiting porn access for children. Interconnected.

Whether you agree or disagree with the ed's stance, he does connect some interesting dots around undisputed facts: games do let players play as terrorists, a game developer was arrested in Iran, and NDAA does not clearly define what it means to support terrorists. While some of the connections are stretches and some are pretty strong, it's at least worth thinking about even if it's not worthy of a letter to your representative (at least, based solely on this argument.)

brandon sheffield
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I do not recall this conversation. was it actually with me? a quick search shows we have had no email contact.

James Hofmann
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SOPA/PIPA was a concern internationally, directly impacted the business interests of the tech sector, and had popular support from casual pirates; NDAA does not share those properties, unfortunately. It's hard to provoke a real discussion when there isn't that critical mass of interest. On the other hand, that should be the job of the game makers - get people interested.

Doug Poston
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I agree, but be warned. If you make a game that gets people interested in the NDAA you will get a visit from HLS.

Majd Abdulqadir
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Can someone please define, once and for all, what the heck "terrorism" is, without excluding part of the world from that definition?

Dave Weatherton
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Loosely, actions that cause others to act outside of a normal comfort zone due to instilled fear. Also, please enjoy:

Bart Stewart
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I once had this same discussion with the former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope magazine. He also made a habit of using his editorial perch to press his personal political beliefs. (Yes, I am a serial objector to this stuff. ;)

His defense was that since the magazine's subject is affected by government action (e.g., NASA's budget), he had not only the power but the responsibility to bring up political issues in his editorials even if some readers found some statements contentious. Seems reasonable, right?

Except that this (or the even more nebulous defense of "science") was used to justify direct criticisms of political perspectives he personally didn't like. "Climate change deniers" was only one example; he just plain didn't like conservatives and he was going to use his editorial position to stick it to them whenever he damned well pleased.

Result: a desirable role as a widely respected reporter of the facts where a hobby is clearly and directly affected by a specific government action (the recent Supreme Court ruling on game sales would be an example of this in the game development arena) was twisted into a blanket excuse to indulge in airing attacks against those benighted souls who, through what can only be stupidity, ignorance, or malice, dare to dispute the editor's obviously socially responsible opinion... regardless of whether jumping on that soapbox serves the broad readership of that magazine or not.

Can anyone show evidence that going political in a hobby magazine expands readership? As a general rule, I don't think it does.

Suppose that you enjoy making clay pots, and that I'm the editor of a popular magazine about pottery. (I'm not; it's just an example.) In this month's issue, I use the fact of government regulation of kilns as a springboard to express the view that this regulation is an unwarranted intrusion into private activity, that it's just the first step toward taking away your clay, that handgun ownership is necessary to prevent such abuses, and that gun control zealots are foolish and possibly evil for opposing these obvious truths.

Would you be inclined to keep subscribing to that magazine? Be honest! (And no -- while it is a contrived example, it is not so unlike the recent pro-Occupy and anti-NDAA and "blacked out in protest" editorializing that Gamasutra readers have endured recently as to be a dissimilar example.)

I don't mind people disagreeing with me about political stuff. I'm also not saying or implying that Brandon is a bad guy -- I'm not a hater, nor is this a vague rant; I simply disagree with what he's doing on this particular subject. And I certainly don't mind political debate. That's healthy and even necessary to the maintenance of a free society.

But I do mind one-sided politicized commentary being jammed in where it serves no general purpose just because someone has the power to do so. And I'm respectfully requesting that that policy be reevaluated. I believe strongly that Gamasutra's readership is better served when people with differing politics can all feel welcome here to discuss how to make great games.

That said, it's not my magazine, so that's just a request, not a demand.

Wylie Garvin
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Where's the dislike button. :(

Ines Beldi
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Even if I think you made a very good point, wouldn't (in theory) opposed opinion pieces satisfy you?

Here's what I mean: I personally need to read several strong opinion pieces to spark an interest and then research the facts by myself. Otherwise, I'll just very lazily let the others do the thinking.

(Unfortunately...) I think most people have a similar, very passive "opinion building process", so... Isn't having someone else's opinion shoved down your throat the best way to make you honestly want to know more? And then research the facts and stop copying other (influential) people's stances?

On a side note, I wish Gamasutra could provide, along with opinion pieces, some "facts overview" articles. I don't read video game news every day and don't live in the US, and so would like it if everyone stopped assuming that I "obviously" know about SOPA or NDAA or whatever.

I think a lot of people only have a very vague idea what these are, just like I do. Please make it easier for us to get smart, don't just assume we are. I feel like this vague understanding + strong opinion pieces = what is fueling the bandwagon effect.

Bart Stewart
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As I said, I support discussion of all ideas and perspectives, especially including political issues.

But that doesn't mean every venue is equally appropriate for every subject. If I want a useful range of thought on an interesting variety of political viewpoints, including ideas that challenge my current beliefs, I can find more and better someplace else. A magazine or website that's normally good for all its readers on its primary subject is not improved by exclusions into one-sided political commentary.

Dave Smith
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editorials are a perfectly valid part of news, provided they are up front about it, and have existed for years.

but the story in general is so one sided because virtually no one outside of the federal government and special interests think its a good idea, and even they can't present anything approaching a valid argument. they know this and this is why they haven't presented much of one.

news organizations are under no obligation to give equal time to opposing sides if one side can't present much of an argument.

Matthew Mouras
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I guess I don't understand your position. Are you genuinely concerned about the readership of Gamasutra, or are you interested in being heard?

If it's the former, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Gamasutra is not at risk of becoming a political organization. The primary focus is and will be on the game industry. Even though they are relevant to the games industry, You can simply avoid the incredibly scant opinion pieces on the site and your enjoyment should not be diminished.

If it's the latter, then surely there are better ways to receive attention? It's instantly gratifying to climb onto a comment-soapbox and receive some immediate feedback, but wouldn't the pleasure be more lasting if you devoted your energies to something of your own? Increase the readership of your blog by writing interesting pieces, create some useful code, etc etc etc...

David Campbell
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@Bart: You should put a big "Opinion: I Object to Political Opinion Pieces on Gamasutra" at the top of your post. That way it'd be easier for the uninterested to completely ignore you.

Bart Stewart
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Thank you, David. The lack of any constructive content in your comment provides a great illustration of why injecting political editorial into a non-political specialist publication is a bad idea.

Christiaan Moleman
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So what you're saying is you objected to the editor of a science magazine objecting to the denial of science?

Roderick Hossack
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The very first word in the very first line of the article is "Opinion." The rest of the line reads ": Why you should be angrier about NDAA than you were about SOPA." Immediately upon reading that, you should've thought, "Damn, this is an opinion piece on why I should subscribe to this guy's political views," and asked yourself a question: "Do I want to read this?"

Clearly, the answer was no, but you read it anyway. And you disagreed with it enough to write all these lengthy comments telling the site's content creators what sort of content they should be creating.

That's not a good look.

Lennard Feddersen
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Brandon & Gamasutra, thanks for informing me about a topic that matters to me and my business.

Benjamin Branch
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Don't forget ACTA, much in the same vain as SOPA except it's an international agreement that does not need to be voted in.

But yes, NDAA is appaling. One of many attacks on the constitution courtesy of the current administration.

Mikhail Mukin
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With all the "SOPA is evil" articles popping up everywhere I realized I don't even know all the details of what it actually is.

Piracy is a real issue. What I think would be nice to have is an effective and hassle-free way to help the rights owners to defend those rights and easily make money out of violations (this IMHO is the key). Say, you made a game (or wrote a song/movie/picture) and you see it on some web-site "for free" w/o your permission. I would assume most of us are like me and would not want to deal with communicating with site owners, filing claims, going to court, preparing docs, hearings - basically, doing anything > 10 min ourselves.

Ideally - you make a copy of the page, copy of a proof that you have the rights to this IP and call some agency. This agency does quick check and if they think "they have the case" - issues a claim to the site owners. Site owners are (under some law - TBD?) obligated to reply within, say, 24 hours and either: pull down content and pay a negotiated fine or say that they have legal rights to have this content and go to court. Repeated offenders should be subject to bigger and bigger fines. But I would assume somebody who set up ~3 such sites would loose everything he owns next time ("3 strikes").

I don't know if there are such laws now - but it could be more like car accidents. Thankfully (fingers crossed), I had it only once and pretty much all I had to do is to spend 10 min answering questions on the phone (well - ok, they asked those 2 times... same questions) and insurance company was dealing with everything after that. Eventually, they sent me results.

Car insurance companies are looking (fighting!) for clients, they know when they have "the case" and can pursue it and make money on it.

Basically, the law (important: international!) should be done in such a way that there would be a whole group of companies targeting IP offenders and making money of it. And if I see my game on some - I would be actually glad - "hey, I just made some easy money in 10 minutes!". How much money - well, depends upon how good this agency is :)

The fact that the guy who owns megaupload claimed (?) he did not do anything illegal should be as funny (and simply proven wrong - in terms of law) as the guy hitting other car when running red light on the wrong lane in front of dozens of witnesses and a traffic camera claiming innocence.

Doug Poston
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There are some very good articles online on what SOPA & PIPA are about but, in short, it will *not* give you a "hassle-free way" to defend your rights.

Most people agree piracy is an issue, but SOPA isn't the right solution. It's like fire-bombing a city because it may contain a pick-pocket.

Timothy Larkin
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NDAA will not allow unconstitutional detention of US citizens. Congressman Allen West explains here

Brad B
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"One popular myth surrounding this law (which has been marketed well by the White House and the mainstream media) is that it does not pertain to U.S. persons (citizens and resident aliens). While the law does not explicitly target U.S. persons, it neither excludes nor protects them. Section 1022 of the law covers U.S. persons. The section allows for open-ended executive judgment with regard to the handling of U.S. persons. In other words, the detention of U.S persons is optional, rather than a requirement as it is for non-U.S. persons. Jonathan Turley, legal scholar and professor at George Washington University, explains that “the provision merely states that nothing in the provisions could be construed to alter Americans’ legal rights. Since the Senate clearly views citizens are not just subject to indefinite detention but even execution without a trial, the change offers nothing but rhetoric to hide the harsh reality.”

Brad B
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Here's the section of the NDAA on page 657 that Congressman Allen West is errantly interpreting:

Neil Sorens
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I think the connection to gaming here is pretty thin. Plus, we're always talking about how "serious games" can provide all sorts of real-life training. Why is it out of the question that someone would in fact create a simulation to help train people in terrorism? There are already books, manuals, and videos that have been produced for the same reason.

Also, it seems that more outrage should be directed at Iran's government, who has actually sentenced someone to death for a game, than at the U.S. for some unlikely hypothetical situation that would immediately arouse the anger of several million gamers and liberty-loving citizens and cost politicians their offices. Or perhaps at Germany, where producing, say, a game where Hitler is the hero or an "alternate reality" where the Holocaust is a fabricated story could be a serious crime.

Doug Poston
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I'm upset about Iran, and question Germany's logic as well. But, as a citizen of the United States, it's my duty to voice my concerns about my county's actions.

To quote another thread I read on this subject: "Just because somebody else has to eat two turds, should I be happy eating only one?"