The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on the "Stop Internet Piracy Act" (aka SOPA). In typical Republican fashion, it was not broadcast on CSPAN and many interested parties were excluded from the proceedings. In fact, the only technology company allowed to testify was Google, who opposes the proposed law along with a coalition of companies which includes Facebook, eBay and Zynga, along with others.
If ever there were a law designed to fatten the pockets of intellectual property attorneys, it is this proposed law. It has the potential to change the Internet, and not for the better. Written by and for large media companies like Comcast, it places full responsibility for intellectual property piracy on the shoulders of site owners rather than users.
As currently written, any website that quoted another site's content, or linked to a site that quoted another site's content could be declared a rogue site by the content owner, whether or not that content is subject to fair use rules. Once declared "rogue", companies like Paypal and Visa could then cut off payments immediately without the benefit of a hearing or due process of law. Fair use? Free speech? Forget about it. Here is the official summary from the House Judiciary Committee site.
This bill focuses not on technology but on preventing those who engage in criminal behavior from reaching directly into the U.S. market to harm American consumers.
We cannot continue a system that allows criminals to disregard our laws and import counterfeit and pirated goods across our physical borders.
Nor can we fail to take effective and meaningful action when criminals misuse the Internet.
The problem of rogue websites is real, immediate and wide-spread. It harms all sectors of the economy.
And its scope is staggering. One recent survey found that nearly one quarter of global Internet traffic infringes on copyrights.
A second study found that 43 sites classified as ‘digital piracy’ generated 53 billion visits per year and that 26 sites selling just counterfeit prescription drugs generated 51 million hits annually.
Since the United States produces the most intellectual property, our country has the most to lose if we fail to address the problem of these rogue websites.
Responsible companies and public officials have taken note of the corrosive and damaging effects of rogue sites.
That last line is dripping with finger-pointing, as the announcement goes on to extol the virtuous Mastercard company while excoriating Google. Mastercard, of course, supports this wholeheartedly, while Google opposes it, along with Facebook and other websites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that sites like Vimeo, Flickr and Etsy would likely die as a result of this legislation.
Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN reporter and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, had this to say:
The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial. The House version goes further, allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright — a sharp change from current law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification. The intention is not the same as China’s Great Firewall, a nationwide system of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar.
Abuses under existing American law serve as troubling predictors for the kinds of abuse by private actors that the House bill would make possible. Take, for example, the cease-and-desist letters that Diebold, a maker of voting machines, sent in 2003, demanding that Internet service providers shut down Web sites that had published internal company e-mails about problems with the company’s voting machines. The letter cited copyright violations, and most of the service providers took down the content without question, despite the strong case to be made that the material was speech protected under the First Amendment.
Indeed. MacKinnon goes on to point out that this bill goes far beyond intellectual property protection. In particular, the House bill is set up to hold companies liable for users' actions. That would kill YouTube forever, but more importantly, it sets up an environment where power is freely wielded by those with the resources to shut down those without resources. Imagine Fox News declaring this site "rogue", for example. Search engines would block all traffic and results, and our right to speak freely (and criticize them freely) would be infringed upon. The same is true of Media Matters. Those with the lawyers and the money would win by default.
The Occupy movement? Dead. They'd shut down the Facebook and Twitter accounts along with the live stream without cause. Simply call it "rogue" and be done. That's how totalitarian societies operate and it's anathema to anyone who understands the Internet.
As Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures says in a blog post, what these bills do is expose a fundamental disconnect between proponents of an open Internet and companies and legislators who would rather create their own kind of Internet: a version of the Web that’s less chaotic, more respectful, and most importantly, a lot easier to control. As Burnham notes, that kind of Internet would make things a lot easier for content producers and entertainment conglomerates, but it would remove or imperil a lot of the things that make the Internet so valuable:
“The Internet is not just a series of pipes. Its core architecture embeds an assumption about human nature.
The Internet is designed to empower individuals, not control them. It assumes that the if individuals are empowered, they will do the right thing the vast majority of the time.
Over the past few days, I've seen reports that this bill is dead and other reports that it's alive and kicking. There are many who are raising their voices against it, including Oregon Senator Wyden, who has placed a hold on it. Unfortunately, it's a bipartisan bill. It shouldn't be. No Democrat should support this kind of suppression online. None. No conservative with true respect for the Constitution should support this kind of suppression, and indeed, one of those who oppose it is Ron Paul, to his credit.
As much as it pains me to admit this, I find myself on the same side as Darrell Issa. Via The Hill:
Issa said the rush to hold the hearing was based on the flawed assumption that the bipartisan bill would quickly become law and said the sponsors didn’t want to hear from opponents, but must now accept that there is real opposition to their bill.
“What they’re realizing is there are so many unintended consequences that they can’t just use Google as a piñata and bash on it here,” he said, citing the broad coalition of opposition encompassing the tech industry, the left and the right.
“I don’t believe this bill has any chance on the House floor,” Issa added when asked about the odds of the bill moving forward after passing the Judiciary Committee. “I think it’s way too extreme, it infringes on too many areas that our leadership will know is simply too dangerous to do in its current form.”
The bottom line here? Many of these lawmakers don't know enough about the Internet to understand the issues at stake. Further, as companies like Amazon, Apple, Spotify, Hulu and others develop ways to stream their content at affordable prices to users, piracy will likely decline. Dropping a nuclear bomb on the Internet is unnecessary to prevent piracy. This is really about control. Comcast wants control of what users can see and stream on their pipes, something I predicted back when they first proposed merging with NBC-Universal.
This attempt by mega-corporations to take control of the Internet needs to be stopped cold. There has been a huge online response expressing opposition, but it needs to continue. Please sign the EFF petition here, or call your representatives to register your opposition to a law which is unnecessarily draconian and serves only the interests of corporations who do not serve yours.