Online Piracy Debate Continues to Divide Washington

WASHINGTON – One year after Congress sought major legislation to put an end to online piracy, lingering concerns over privacy and Internet freedom promise to start anew the discussion on intellectual property rights in Washington – an issue that will likely make the technology and content industries clash again.

In light of the recent death of renowned Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, many supporters of Internet freedom took to the web on Jan. 18 to celebrate Free Internet Day and commemorate the important role he played in the defeat of anti-piracy legislation last year. At the time of his death, Swartz faced charges for allegedly hacking into the database of a digital library and threatening to make millions of academic articles free to the public.

Like many, Swartz worried about how the Internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it. This led him and a diverse group composed of civil liberties groups, Internet activists, and technology companies to stand against two major anti-piracy bills considered by Congress last year.

The House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), intended to end online piracy by blocking websites accused of copyright infringement. The bill was shot down last year over concerns that its reach was too broad, resulting in a crackdown on legitimate sites.

SOPA would have given content producers the power to force Internet service providers, search engines, or payment services to shut down access to a website that the content owner believed violated its copyrights.

The second anti-piracy bill, the U.S. Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), also focused on curbing access “to websites dedicated to the sale of infringing or counterfeiting goods,” particularly those registered outside of the U.S.

The bills would have imposed restrictions on U.S. companies forcing them to stop selling online ads to suspected pirate sites, processing payment for illegal online sales, and listing websites suspected of piracy in search engine results.

Opponents argued the bills would have foisted considerable regulatory costs on technology firms and stifled the freedom to innovate, without reducing the availability of pirated content online. In addition, free speech advocates worried that the legislation may have provided new tools to the government to silence online speech.

Last January, the Internet sent a loud message to Congress in what was the largest online protest in history. Thousands of websites participated in the coordinated blackout, some of them posting links so people could urge Congress to stop the bill. On Jan. 18, 2012, several prominent websites, such as Wikipedia and Reddit, entirely cut off access to their users. Other sites, like Google and Flickr, featured protests against the laws on their homepages.

The response was so overwhelming that House Judiciary Committee chairman Smith and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shelved both bills in the Senate and the House shortly after the blackout.

But despite last year’s setback, the content industry did not cease its pursuit of intellectual property and copyright legislation to curb online piracy, and it has now focused its sights on other ways to bring about such laws, both domestically and overseas.

The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a multilateral trade agreement that includes rules on intellectual property and its enforcement. The free trade agreement – currently being discussed by eleven nations including the U.S. – has received widespread criticism for its lack of transparency.

The official draft of the agreement has not been released to the public, but last year Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) took the unprecedented step of leaking a secret U.S. trade document – though various sources had already made the text available to the public. Issa published the entire chapter of the TPP dealing with intellectual property in an effort to push the Obama administration into disclosing more details of the trade agreement.

“Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee trade negotiations and not simply act as a rubber stamp to deals about which they were kept in the dark. While I had hoped the TPP would permit me to observe this round of the negotiation process firsthand, our efforts to open TPP negotiations up to transparency will continue,” said Issa in a letter sent to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, shortly after leaking the text.

According to the leaked portion of the document, the U.S. is pushing for the adoption of copyright measures far more restrictive than currently required by other international treaties in the past and that could require changes in current U.S. law. Reviews show that the proposal increases proprietor rights significantly, without an equal expansion of limitations and exceptions to such rights needed to serve the public.

As it is standard procedure for multilateral trade agreements, trade representatives of the participating nations conduct negotiations behind closed doors. A select group of transnational corporations, however, has access to the texts and talks of the negotiations as consultants. Large pharmaceutical manufacturers and the Hollywood entertainment industry dominate this advisory group.