On Wednesday, more than 7,000 websites went black to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and its sister legislation, the Protect IP Act. Several congressional sites went dark as well, though not for the same reason: congressional sources said House and Senate staffs were fielding a volume of phone calls not seen since the passage of Obamacare. Government web servers groaned and gave way under the onslaught of roughly three times the average traffic.
Supporters say the two bills would give the U.S. the power to shut down — or at least seriously hamper — online piracy by foreign sites. The two bills are heavily backed by the Motion Picture Association of America, which claims it has lost $250 billion and 750,000 jobs to piracy — claims critics say are wildly inflated.
Critics such as Google and Microsoft say the bills would essentially break the internet, giving the Justice Department the power to shut down sites which allegedly infringe on copyrighted content simply on the accusation, without due process.
The bills have not just corporate titans such as Google and Microsoft up in arms, but groups as disparate as Republican legislators and the ACLU, not to mention the Huffington Post and Glenn Beck, in agreement for what may be the first and last time in history. The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbies for online freedoms, has been amazed at the response. Said EFF Attorney Corynne McSherry:
It’s been pretty interesting to see the wide coalition of people who are against it. They see these bills for what they are — an attempt at Internet regulation which will interfere with our basic freedoms.
McSherry noted that the legislation simply will not put the dent in piracy the lobbyists are saying it will:
The major groups which are lobbying for this are selling their memberships a bill of goods. It’s not going to solve the problem. This is a business problem. When you have a business problem you talk to your business people, you don’t resort to legislation. EFF has long argued that the right answer is a new business model, not legislation.
She also noted the inflated numbers companies use to push for legislation like this:
They count every use that’s not paid for as a lost sale. That’s not accurate.
McSherry noted that individuals who “pirate” music or video games often do so simply to try it out and later buy the album or game. She also said it can hardly be counted as a lost sale, as those who do not later buy the title likely wouldn’t have purchased it anyway.
Google, Wikipedia, and others argue SOPA would censor the internet and kill jobs in one of the few sectors of the economy which is growing:
The U.S. Government could order the blocking of sites using methods similar to those employed by China. Among other things, search engines could be forced to delete entire websites from their search results. That’s why 41 human rights organizations and 110 prominent law professors have expressed grave concerns about the bills.
Law-abiding U.S. internet companies would have to monitor everything users link to or upload or face the risk of time-consuming litigation. That’s why AOL, EBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga wrote a letter to Congress saying these bills “pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation.” It’s also why 55 of America’s most successful venture capitalists expressed concern that PIPA “would stifle investment in Internet services, throttle innovation, and hurt American competitiveness.” More than 204 entrepreneurs told Congress that PIPA and SOPA would “hurt economic growth and chill innovation.”
You can argue that foreign piracy needs to be shut down … and shut down for good. At the same time you can recognize that the innovation and wealth that has come out of the Internet far exceeds that of the Motion Picture Association and many of these other groups combined.
Issa has sponsored the competing Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade or OPEN Act, which is much less broad and seeks to deny funding to infringing sites through the International Trade Commission, which already enforces laws against counterfeit goods such as fake designer handbags. Issa says that currently the ITC intercepts and seizes far more fake goods than actually make it to the shelves of bodegas in New York City. Issa also noted the OPEN Act has been available for public markup on the Web for four weeks now.
It must be noted that Issa personally has a stake in this fight as the holder of more patents than any other member of Congress.
Congressional sources noted that when Issa and several others came to the House markup session of the SOPA bill with technical questions, the supporters mostly glossed over them or simply didn’t understand the questions.
McSherry said the OPEN Act is flawed, but is a better option than the two bills currently in front of Congress — but that EFF is focusing on stopping them right now:
These two bills need to be killed. OPEN is better; it’s still flawed but can be fixed.
Currently SOPA is dead in the House, but its Senate counterpart PIPA is alive and well, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is vowing to pass it — even though Senate Republicans, including Jerry Moran, (R-KS) have vowed a filibuster.
McSherry said that should either bill be signed into law, a constitutional challenge is waiting:
What we have learned over the last decade is that legislation is not the answer. We have a First Amendment right to access this information. If SOPA passes there will be a constitutional challenge. I’ll be happy to lead that charge.