By Jason Poggioli
Many Internet sites staged an online demonstration protesting two pieces of legislation currently making their way through Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) authored by Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) by Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). While these bills have been written with the intention of protecting people who make a living creating intellectual property, the actual enforcement of these proposed laws can effectively end the concept of free speech on the Internet.
The list of Internet sites opposing these two bills is staggering. Among them are Google, AOL, Ebay, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Wired, and WordPress, the company behind the software running this blog.
To be clear, the bills are coming from good intentions. It’s understandable that creators of content, whether it be books, movies, music, or anything else, should want to make sure their product isn’t getting passed around for free. However, the way these bills are going about it is not only wrong but have been drafted inside staggering clouds of ignorance regarding how the Internet works. There are many more in-depth writings analyzing these bills such as this one, but here’s a quick summary.
First, the bills aren’t aimed at stopping piracy, but at forcing operators of web sites to stop linking to other sites identified by copyright lawyers as engaging in copyright infringement. At first this sounds like a fine plan, but when you begin to get into the details you start to uncover a myriad of instances where this would be not only unfairly burdensome to sites like this one, but nearly impossible for sites like Google, which operates a search engine in a completely automated fashion. Many sites, such as www.reddit.com, are based on the democratic concept of users submitting interesting links while other users vote on those links. The links gathering most votes get seen by more readers. Should a site like Reddit receive a take-down notice it would need to find and remove the offending user-submitted content from its entire site as well as continue to monitor all future submissions. This is only the most basic example.
Secondly, the bills won’t actually stop piracy because the Internet is a worldwide communications system. Sites dedicated to the transmission of copyrighted material can simply set up shop offshore where U.S. authorities can’t get to them. Which means sites left operating in the United States would be instructed not link to them. Then, once an overseas site has been targeted it could easily change domain names and keep its operations going. The end result being that law enforcement spends all its time haranguing legal sites here, trying to play whack-a-mole with links to overseas sites, while being completely ineffectual in stopping piracy.
There are many other reasons why these bills are not only ineffectual, but bad for the Internet. New startup companies would be forced to spend more time, effort, and money covering themselves legally for a useless law. Given the broad wording of the bills as to what constitutes “copyrighted material” and therefore who can bring about these claims, there is a strong potential for abuse. I urge you to read more on this topic.
Finally, there remains the very real issue of piracy. At the core of the problem is anything created that can be digitized into ones and zeros can then be copied millions of times with the simple click of a button. With the rapid spread of technology, virtually any intellectual property (often referred to as IP) is susceptible to this kind of rampant copying. Attempting to require rightful payment to the creators of that intellectual property is going to be the challenge for the foreseeable future. There are very smart people debating this issue daily around the world. At one extreme is the idea that it is absolutely impossible to lock down IP and we have simply entered an age in which paying someone for their IP is now subject to the honor system. At the other extreme is the idea that it’s possible to lock down content and force people to pay, while at the same time not interfering with the normal and legal operations of the Internet.
I’m not certain what the ultimate solution to this problem can be, but I know that these proposed laws are not it. Although at the time of this writing our Senators from New York, Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, seem to think they are a good idea.