It has been widely reported that the hacked Sony Pictures emails reveal that in early 2014, MPAA launched Project Goliath, a policy initiative to develop legal tools to block access to websites that facilitate infringement. The effort to develop such legal tools at the federal level failed spectacularly with the SOPA/PIPA debacle, so Project Goliath attempted to enlist the support of state attorneys general. The news reports about Project Goliath speculate that “Goliath” is a code name for Google, one of the most vocal opponents of SOPA/PIPA and a frequent target of entertainment industry complaints that its search engine directs users to infringing sites such as cyberlockers. Google in a policy blog expressed “deep concerns” about the revelations, and asked why the MPAA, an organization that claims to be committed to the First Amendment and artists’ freedom of expression, was “trying secretly to censor the Internet.” The MPAA responded that “Google’s effort to position itself as a defender of free speech is shameful.”
The MPAA presumably selected the name Project Goliath as an allusion to the Biblical story of David and Goliath, where David, then a young shepherd, defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. “David and Goliath” is a frequently used metaphor for a weak underdog defeating a much stronger enemy, and the MPAA likely saw itself as the scrappy David who hopefully would prevail over the larger and more powerful tech-giant Google. Perhaps the MPAA was also drawn to the Bible’s depiction of David as a musician and a poet. However, MPAA’s identification with David is significantly more complex than it appears at first blush.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, published in October 2013, just before the launch of Project Goliath, interpreting the biblical story as a metaphor for the improbable victory of the weak over the strong is a complete misreading of the story as presented in the Book of Samuel and as understood by generations of Jewish and Christian theologians.
Although David was smaller than Goliath and was not wearing armor, the weapon he had, the sling, gave him a significant technological advantage over Goliath at medium and long range. According to Gladwell, a properly used sling could launch a projectile with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun, and could kill targets at distances up to 200 yards. Goliath’s size and armor gave him an advantage only in hand-to-hand single combat–the sort of combat he expected when he challenged the Israelites to a duel. David, however, had no intention of fighting that kind of duel. Instead, he adopted a tactic in which Goliath, not he, was the underdog. Likewise, in the political arena where the MPAA is pursuing Project Goliath, Google, not the MPAA, is the underdog.
Further, by intentionally violating the accepted conventions of single combat in antiquity by using a sling, David arguably cheated. To be sure, theologians typically have not viewed David’s choice of weapon as underhanded. Instead, David’s great transgression was his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his military commanders. David compounded this sin by orchestrating the death of Uriah in combat. In typical Old Testament fashion, David was severely punished for his misconduct with Bathsheba and Uriah. David and Bathsheba’s son died, and one of David’s other sons, Absalom, rebelled against him and was killed during the resulting civil war. The MPAA has aligned itself with a deeply flawed character.
While there may be nothing illegal about Project Goliath, questions have been raised about the propriety of the close cooperation between the MPAA and the office of Mississippi state attorney general Jim Hood. According to the New York Times, a letter Hood sent to Google challenging its practices was drafted almost in its entirety by MPAA’s law firm, Jenner & Block.
Theologians point out that David was not the underdog in the fight with Goliath in another critical respect: David had God on his side. At God’s direction, the prophet Samuel had already anointed David as the future King of Israel. As David drew near to Goliath, David proclaimed: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands….”
God continued to favor David during his conflict with King Saul and once he was proclaimed King. After David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, God made a covenant with David, and informed him through the prophet Nathan that David’s “throne shall be established forever.” According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will be a descendant of the House of David. Christian tradition views David as an ancestor of Jesus.
It could very well be that MPAA believes that God is on its side, and that Project Goliath has a messianic quality. On the other hand, it is always dangerous to read too much into metaphor.