January 18, 2012
The U.S. House of Representatives is debating legislation that could fundamentally change what types of content we’re allowed to access over the Internet, and the resulting outrage has sparked a heated ideological debate. But for some reason the media isn’t talking about it.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA, as it’s widely called) was introduced in October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). It’s a boldly ambitious plan to give copyright holders — and the courts, by proxy — better tools to fight the profligacy of online piracy originating from foreign websites.
In a nutshell: SOPA would give copyright holders the power to file lawsuits against sites that they believe are aiding in the pilfering of their goods, be it music, movies, TV shows, video games, or the distribution of tangible, counterfeit consumables. Judges could file injunctions against Internet Service Providers or individual websites, forcing them to block access to foreign sites deemed in violation of U.S. copyright law.
Included in the bill is an immunity provision for Internet providers that proactively remove “rogue” sites from their registries. In other words, SOPA attacks Internet piracy not by going after sites that create and supply nefarious content, but by censoring ISPs and search engines that enable their availability, knowingly or not. Specific targets include payment providers (like PayPal) that facilitate transactions with spurious sites, and ad services (like Google’s AdSense) that promote copyright infringing content in search results. The bill’s authors are aware that many of the Internet’s biggest bootleggers operate overseas. Because attorneys general can’t round up foreign DVD pirates, they’ll instead punish U.S. sites that facilitate a portion of their profits.
SOPA currently has thirty-one Congressional sponsors. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (better known as PIPA), was passed but is currently on hold and awaiting further debates. Given the noted support that SOPA has received from both political parties, it’s important to mention that the divide over the bill is economic rather than political. Supporters and detractors comprise a who’s who in the supply chain of the digital commerce world: on the former side you’ll find virtually every U.S. broadcast and major media company, as well as manufacturers like Sony, video game giant Capcom, comic publisher Marvel, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Recording Industry Association of America, to name a few; on the latter is a groundswell of opposition from creators, artists, grassroots advocates, and Internet leaders like Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, Reddit, and non-profits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the ACLU.
Supporters of the proposed bill believe that SOPA gives copyright holders some much needed legal teeth to curb online theft. Opponents—and I count myself among them—argue that this is yet another example of the government’s increasing tendency to provision our freedoms under the auspices of safety. It gives the U.S. Department of Justice unprecedented authority to trowel the Internet for content it doesn’t like, in effect taking on the role of content arbiter.
To say that the opposition has been vocal would be an understatement. In January, Wikipedia announced it would shut down the English portion of its site for 24 hours in protest of the legislation. [Happening 1/18, at the time of publication.] Co-founder Jimmy Wales also said he’d pull all Wikimedia content from hosting company Go Daddy’s servers in opposition to their SOPA advocacy (Go Daddy has since rescinded its support of SOPA, claiming it now opposes the bill). Social site Reddit has staged a boycott against pro-SOPA companies, targeting anyone who’s in favor of its passage. Unlikely political bedfellows such as Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore have joined forces to denounce the bill.
Given the historic magnitude of what’s being proposed inside the Beltway, it’s decidedly unusual that these bills — and the deluge of opposition — are being almost completely ignored by major U.S. television news networks. A January Media Matters report claims that SOPA and PIPA have received “virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming.” The report, based on Lexis-Nexis database searches that analyzed newscasts dating back to when SOPA was introduced in October, found that ABC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC devoted a sum total of zero time to this issue during prime evening newscasts.
Some networks bore minor exceptions. In December, CNN featured a single snippet on The Situation Room that mentioned SOPA. And while Fox News hasn’t touched the issue, host Andrew Napolitano broached the subject on sister channel Fox Business Network. Otherwise, major broadcast news outlets have responded to the possible passage of one of the most historic media and copyright bills in American history with complete, unanimous silence.
It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that the parent companies responsible for this blackout are, without exception, noted SOPA supporters. News Corporation (which owns Fox), Time Warner (which owns CNN), Viacom (which owns CBS), Walt Disney Corporation (which owns ABC and ESPN), and Comcast/NBCUniversal are all current advocates of the legislation. The media’s blatant disregard for the issue shifts from coincidental to damning when you consider the obvious relationship between the services these companies provide and what they seek to gain from SOPA’s passage. Faced with the harrowing realization that their old business models are obsolete, U.S. media companies are attempting to quell hemorrhaging revenues and maintain market share not by adapting to the age, but by stifling online commercial and social behaviors. It’s the equivalent of burning down the house to protect one’s property from theft.
And speaking of theft, it should be mentioned that piracy is indeed a real issue. Copyright holders should be able to protect their intellectual property and make money from their work. The problem with SOPA is the means by which it would attempt to achieve these ends.
Here’s what’s wrong with it:
- First, it’s unconstitutional. Our ability to access information—whether it’s in a book or on a website—is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Moreover, in its current proposed state, judges can grant a court order against sites if a copyright holder presents evidence regarding a violation, without representation from the defendant. Owners of sites accused of enabling pirated content can have legal action taken against them without even being aware of it. SOPA denies legal recourse and violates the principles of due process.
- Second, it could prove economically disastrous. Our nascent Internet advertising industry (like Google’s hallmark AdWords program, where sponsored links germane to a user’s Google query appear next to search results) could collapse under this new model. The pro-business rhetoric coming from those supporting the bill is a joke, considering the revenue and job-killing possibilities it possesses in its current form.
- Third, it’s crudely ineffectual. The practice of “IP blocking” is akin to relocating a store’s address so potential customers can’t find it, but this is a laughably temporary salve. Offending sites can simply create a new domain name or enlist a browser plug-in to redirect users to a new site, practices many of these sites already employ.
- Finally, it’s sweepingly broad; it goes further than what’s necessary to combat sites peddling counterfeit goods. The specific tactics this bill proposes — pruning entries from the Internet’s library of addresses — threatens important security protocols, meddles with the core infrastructure of the Internet, and ultimately undermines the egalitarian principles upon which it was built. In the end, a few very trivial benefits will come at a huge cost to cyber security and the notion of online expression as we know it.
Both SOPA and PIPA are, at their essence, a matter of bewildering impracticality and gross political miscalculation. This is underscored by the fact that neither the bills’ authors nor their Congressional supporters sought input from the tech community regarding possible security concerns or how its proposed tactics would affect the Internet’s present ontology. It’s yet another example of Internet law being written not with the interests of the public in mind, but rather to appease the demands of the special interest groups that fund Congress.
Government-imposed Internet filtering is a practice common in countries like China and Iran. If SOPA becomes law, the U.S. will embark on a dangerous precedent. And as extreme as it seems, the likelihood of SOPA passing through Congress in one form or another is actually quite good. Internet law has become a Congressional cause célèbre in recent years; between SOPA and PIPA — and a flurry of incoming drafts currently being written on the Hill — it’s clear this is an issue that isn’t going away. The U.S. is currently one of only seven countries that doesn’t filter Internet access. But if the recent traction of these bills is any indication, that might not be the case for very long.