To the uninitiated, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might sound like a larger version of local chambers of commerce: something like the Elks or the Rotary Club, where dull businesspeople get together for dull meetings to eat rubber chicken and to "network."
But the U.S. Chamber is the largest lobbying organization in the world, and one of the most powerful. It hews pretty much to the modern conservative/Tea Party line: "government bad, freedom good." It's all for corporate personhood and lax regulation of the financial industry. It's reliably against health care reform and environmental regulation. Somehow, it ties all these things to the idea of "liberty" -- usually by simply invoking the word, not by actually tying the concept to the Chamber's pet issues.
"Government bad," though, is a permeable idea for the Chamber. When the organization thinks government intervention will actually help its members' bottom lines, it is downright shameless in calling on the government for help. For example, when it comes to fighting online piracy, the organization teams up with some of its biggest (real or perceived) enemies: Big Labor, Big Hollywood, the "liberal media" and congressional Democrats.
But just because it for once has signed on to a bipartisan measure doesn't mean the Chamber is about to start telling the truth or stop mischaracterizing its opponents' positions.
At issue are bills in the House and Senate aimed at combating foreign sites like the Pirate Bay that make available illicit copies of movies, TV shows and music. Both the Senate bill, Protect IP, and the House bill, the Stop Online Privacy Act, would allow federal prosecutors to seek court orders to shut down access to foreign sites where pirated material is available. Piracy is a problem; whether the bills would solve it without unfairly catching innocent victims like ISPs and search engines in its net and creating huge technical problems for the Internet (or whether it would solve the problem at all) is an open question.
What's not in question is the Chamber's gross mischaracterization of the bill's opponents. Steve Tepp, the Chamber's lawyer in charge of pursuing enactment of the bill, calls the bill's detractors "the anti-IP crowd," as if opposing a bill that could start putting court-empowered businesses in charge of what is and is not allowed on the Internet makes a person opposed to the very concept of intellectual property. Tepp's snarky and puerile blog post takes on Demand Progress, a shrieky opponent of the bill. It doesn't mention such clamer, more levelheaded opponents as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, Google, or Yahoo.
TechDirt's Mike Masnick has been all over this story. As he notes, "being against this bill is not about being 'anti-IP' .... It's about recognizing the massive benefits to the American (and world) economy that were created from an open Internet that didn't involve misplaced, third-party liability."
The problem for Masnick is that, like too many issue advocates (such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), he downplays or ignores his opponents' valid arguments and concerns. The media industry loses vast piles of money to piracy, a fact that Masnick tends to ignore or at least downplay. Many jobs are lost to it. While Masnick rightly notes that IP Protect could put lots of onerous duties on Internet companies (for example, by forcing search engines and other sites to constantly monitor the Internet for links to sites that offer pirated material), he says one effect of the law would be to "[kill] off more jobs than ever existed in the entertainment industry."
More than a little far-fetched, that. And tellingly, he doesn't cite any sources for the assertion.
Masnick also underestimates his opponents, calling the Chamber "clueless" in using incendiary language like "the anti-IP crowd." But the Chamber knows what it's doing in employing such rhetoric. So does Masnick. The question is, are either of them helping?
The proposed bills, as they stand, are probably not the answer to combating online piracy. There are just too many downsides. But a workable solution won't be found in conducting intellectually dishonest flamewars.
Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.
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