Congress Attacks Internet Freedom: SOPA and PIPA
What do Democratic Senator from Vermont Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative from Texas Lamar Smith have in common (besides being politicians)? Both are championing bills expanding the U.S. government and copyright holder’s powers to fight online trafficking of copyrighted material and to curb access to websites which infringe on copyrighted material or counterfeit good, especially those outside the U.S.
Both bills have wide bi-partisan support. The main supporter of both bills is the entertainment industry, looking for stronger enforcement and penalties on infringement of copyrighted movies, television shows and music and their subsequent loss of revenue.
Representative Smith introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in October, 2011. According to Rep. Smith, the bill allows the Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders against websites that permit infringement of copyrighted materials. After a court order has been granted, the Attorney General could require internet service providers, such as Google, PayPayl and Visa, to suspend all business with the identified websites and implement reasonable technological measures to prevent access to the site. Search engines may be barred from displaying links to the site. The bill would also make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material a felony.
The other measure introduced by Senator Leahy in May, 2011, is along the same lines. His bill is the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, or PROTECT IP Act, or even easier, PIPA. PIPA is a rewrite of another bill, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass in 2010. The stated goal of PIPA is to give the US government and copyright holder’s additional tools to curb access to rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods.
Stop Online Piracy Act
The intent of SOPA is to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.
Provisions of SOPA include:
- Seeking court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement
- Barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with infringing websites
- Barring search engines from linking to sites
- Requiring internet service providers to block sites
- Making unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material a felony
- Granting immunity to internet service providers that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement
- Making any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement liable for damages
PROTECT IP Act
The PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) provides for “enhancing enforcement against rogue websites operated and registered overseas” or attempts to limit copyright infringement online by blocking domains. As in SOPA, a court order is obtained against the domain, which is then served against financial transaction providers, internet advertising agencies, internet service providers, and information location tools associated with the offending site.
Any sites which link to the rogue site shall use an information location tool which takes technically feasible and reasonable steps to remove or disable access to the internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order. The site must also delete all hyperlinks to the offending site.
Proponents of the Bills
The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research (ACI), a non-partisan, non-profit organization, recently conducted a national consumer survey and found that the majority of consumers support stronger intellectual property protections against the trafficking of counterfeit goods. Eight hundred people were surveyed and 82% of consumers agreed that counterfeit goods, such as knock-off products, pirated software, movies and music, and fake pharmacy drugs have a negative impact on the economy.
Some of the survey findings include:
- 80% supporting legislation to increase criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly sells counterfeit goods to the military
- 81% supporting legislation to increase criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly sells counterfeit drugs
- 78% supporting legislation that would block foreign-based internet websites from trafficking in counterfeit goods
ACI president Steve Pociask stated, “Counterfeiting and piracy is a destructive force that threatens consumer, hurts our economy and costs American jobs.”
Opposition to the Bills
Search engine giant Google CEO Eric Schmidt says he “supports the bills stated goals” but the solutions are draconian in nature. The bill is also opposed by LinkedIn, Mozilla, Reddit and Tumblr as resulting in internet censorship. A spokesperson for Tumblr said the bill, “as written, would betray more than a decade of U.S. policy and advocacy of internet freedom by establishing a censorship system using the same domain blacklisting technologies as used in China and Iran.”
Public Knowledge, a non-profit public interest group that is involved in intellectual property law and a supporter of open access to the internet has come out against both PIPA and SOPA. Public Knowledge believes PIPA and SOPA would jeopardize online community platforms and innovation, set a bad example for internet censorship globally and threaten online security.
Both bills use of over-broad definitions of piracy to include websites and services the public uses to store, share and link to media – such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. SOPA and PIPA both order U.S. providers of Domain Name Systems (DNS) servers to block users from reaching specific websites which may expose those attempting to bypass the DNS blocks to computer viruses. They would also set a precedent for online censorship which could lead to countries blocking unfavorable online content, which in some countries, may lead to human rights violations.
Where Do You Stand?
We would all agree that copyright holder’s rights should not be infringed upon. People and companies have worked hard to create a product or brand and someone should not be able to come along and profit from their name with an inferior product. But is either PIPA or SOPA the best way to go about it?
There are already internet copyright infringement laws on the books. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the law since 1998, specifically criminalizes production and distribution of technology, devices or services which circumvent measures used to control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA also increased penalties for copyright infringement on the internet. The DMCA limited the liability of internet service providers for copyright infringement by their users.
The new measures would hold internet service providers and search engines responsible for reviewing all of their registered domain names to see if any sites were infringing on copyrighted material or be penalized. One of the provisions of SOPA, to make the streaming of copyrighted material a felony, could expose YouTube to penalties if a copyrighted video was streamed by someone using the site.
Requiring search engines to bar sites and block links to offending domain names would change forever the widely held concept of free internet access to all. These bills would basically allow the government to decide which websites you or I can visit, based on whether a large corporation has determined they are infringing on any of their copyrighted material.