Pull the plug on SOPA/PIPA

Bruce Walker Managing Editor, Infotech & Telecom News
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As we have seen often in movies and books about organized crime, mobsters will rub out anyone perceived as a threat to profitability. So, apparently, will the recording and motion picture industries, which are supporting congressional efforts to “disappear” entire domain name systems or websites that may or may not violate copyright laws. Their weapons: the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s Protect IP Act.

Today Wikipedia and Reddit are waging a high-profile protest against the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation by blacking out their sites.

SOPA and PIPA are the Scylla and Charybdis of copyright protection; they would allow the U.S. attorney general to shut down entire domain name systems and websites that content producers suspect of violating copyrights. Despite bipartisan support in Congress, the bills have generated fierce opposition from groups as ideologically diverse as The Heartland Institute, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and MoveOn.org. That’s all in addition to the White House, which just last week issued a powerful statement on the bills’ overreach: “We would not be opposed to thoughtfully drafted legislation intended to alleviate or mitigate infringement. But there’s nothing thoughtful or sensible about SOPA or PIPA. These bills have been crafted to damage and undermine the Internet by corporations that fear the Internet. They must be stopped.”

Cybersecurity experts, including the government’s own Sandia Labs, have written letters to Congress explaining how dangerous SOPA and PIPA would be for U.S. infrastructure. It seems the only people favoring the bills are legislators and their corporate backers. As a result, the bills are being fast-tracked for passage after nearly $100 million of lobbying largesse from an entertainment industry eager to employ Congress as its enforcer.

Content producers have consistently attempted to protect their respective revenue streams from copyright infringements brought about by new technologies. In the 1970s, it was the skull-and-crossbones-adorned “home-taping is killing music” labels on LPs, brought about by affordable cassette-tape decks. The ubiquity of VHS players in American households in the 1980s terrified Hollywood with consumers’ ability to duplicate television programs and films. In the 1990s, it became increasingly easy to make copies of DVDs and CDs. The threats to the music industry presented by the advent of Napster and other peer-to-peer Internet sites at the turn of the century were deemed illegal, resulting in millions of dollars of fines for housewives and college students seeking to bolster their music collections without paying for the privilege.

Nevertheless, the Internet has made it increasingly easy to download films and music illegally. In attempting to protect copyrighted material and the industry and artists’ profitability, however, SOPA/PIPA introduces a “shoot-first, ask-questions-later” approach that threatens non-violating sites and domain name systems while raising serious questions about First Amendment issues.

SOPA and PIPA — and the similarly flawed Combating Online Infringement of Copyright Act, which morphed into PIPA in 2011 — contain vague language that would allow the government to seize sites that present only user-generated content. Think it can’t happen? Something similar already has. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement seized the hip-hop blog dajaz1.com in December 2010 on the grounds the completely legitimate site was violating copyrights. The government finally returned the site to the bloggers — one year later and with no explanations, much less an apology.

Imagine a United States where the government possessed the authority to “remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the [court] order; or not serve a hypertext link to such Internet site.” Forcing search engines to remove links to an entire website because of a single infringing page is fraught with the potential of First Amendment violations. Additionally, copyright holders claiming infringement by a website could seek a court injunction against the DNS that would stymie all financial transactions and advertising.

The music and film industries survived the home-taping booms of past decades, and they likely will survive the digital piracy age without enacting the costly and dangerous provisions of SOPA/PIPA. Protecting copyrights and trademarks is indeed important, but the regulatory overreach of SOPA/PIPA requires rejection of both and a return to the legislative drawing board.

Bruce Edward Walker is the managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News. You can email him at bwalker@heartland.org.