Ramrodding the End of the Internet as We Know It

November 21, 2011 09:54

It would allow the government to create a “blacklist” of blocked sites and give private companies the ability to strip the financial livelihoods of websites without due process.

By Zachary Gappa at Center for a Just Society

Wednesday saw the first House Judiciary Committee hearings on a proposed law that would allow for massive government interference in the Internet in the name of protecting copyrights.  The “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) is the latest effort to empower copyright owners against possible copyright violations on the Internet (a similar bill, the Protect IP Act, was introduced in the Senate in May).  SOPA could constitute an unbelievable governmental threat to the Internet as we know it.

There are a few primary components of the legislation.  It allows the government to block the domain names of websites outside of the U.S. that enable piracy.  Unfortunately, enabling piracy has a pretty loose definition.  The law could easily be interpreted to require websites to actively police all content posted by their users and eliminate anything that might infringe copyright.  This task is next-to-impossible for sites with large amounts of user-generated content.  How could a site like Facebook live up to this standard with millions of users posting content daily?

Beyond blocking the domain name, the government would also be able to block the site from search engines and shut down all advertising and payment revenue to the site.  Further, the government can block the site from showing up in the results of all search engines (Google, Bing, etc.).  As a comparison, imagine if similar legislation in England were to block the domain name and all revenue from YouTube and remove YouTube from all search results simply because a YouTube user posted an unauthorized clip from an soccer match.  This is the kind of excessive action contained in SOPA.

Finally, and perhaps most concerning, SOPA would enable private copyright-holders to block funding to a website by issuing a notice to their payment providers and advertisers.  Essentially, they would merely have to issue a notice to the likes of Paypal or VISA claiming that the target site was enabling piracy and they could block the livelihood of that site.  (One example of how easy this is was published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation – click here to read it.)  Imagine how often and how easily this could be abused by the MPAA or RIAA, among others.

If approved, SOPA would remake the Internet.  Until this point, we have had “Safe Harbor” rules that protected websites like YouTube and Facebook from liability for the content their users post.  In order to provide balance, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (1998) also protected copyright holders.  The holder can currently issue a “takedown notice” to the main website (this happens on YouTube all the time), and the website will yank the content unless their user disputes the action.  This current Safe Harbor status would be decimated by SOPA.

SOPA would also completely gut “Fair Use” protections.  Fair Use protections allow people to reproduce copyrighted materials if the use is for “criticism, comment, news report, teaching… scholarship, or research.”  Fair Use requires judgment, and disputes can be taken to court.  But what website is going to respect this standard when the government and private copyright holders are wielding such large sticks?  Fair Use becomes a protection in name only.

So how did such a heavy-handed bill come before Congress?  It’s being pushed through by the well-funded efforts of very interested parties, including the Chamber of Commerce, MPAA, RIAA, and the AFL-CIO.  In fact, the bill had very strong bipartisan support until just recently, when a bit of a public outcry has risen.  Major companies like Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Facebook, and a slew of others have spoken out strongly against the bill, and the news media is beginning to pick up the story.  Yahoo! even pulled its membership from the Chamber of Commerce over this issue.

Most disturbingly, many members of Congress appear to be ready to pass this bill without even hearing from the opposition.  In the initial judicial committee hearing, five supporting voices were heard from, while Google was the only opposing voice invited.  Five-to-one sounds like a balanced hearing, doesn’t it?

Piracy is and should be illegal – there is no question about that.  People ought to be paid for the content they produce.  There are, however, other solutions available to major content companies.  They already have the power to issue take-down notices, and this power is employed hourly.  They should also work harder to make their content easy to purchase.  Give the consumers what they want!  Look at the amount of money content-producers have made since Apple made digital music so easy to buy on iTunes.  People today want to cherry-pick their music, tv shows, and movies, and the younger generation wants their media online and on all of their devices.  Give the people what they want at an affordable price, and most will buy rather than taking the many extra pains to pirate.  Enacting massive powers via federal legislation will do far more harm than good.

Fundamentally, the government is considering a serious change to the Internet as we know it.  This would open the door to complete government entrenchment in our daily online lives.  It would allow the government to create a “blacklist” of blocked sites and give private companies the ability to strip the financial livelihoods of websites without due process.  Such major legislation must not be pushed through by deep-pocketed industries without public comment or a fair hearing.  The government must do its ethical duty to be open, transparent, and evenhanded in their consideration of this controversial legislation.  There are major issues of free speech and private property at play here.  Now is not the time for haste or obscurity.

Zachary Gappa is a Consultant for the Center for a Just Society and Operations Manager at Gappa Security Solutions.  Some of his other articles have been published in various places online, including Town Hall, Crosswalk, and The Christian Post.

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