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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Might Be Bad Policy, but It's Not Censorship

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:10 PM


If you're reading this, chances are that you regularly consume media online. And if you regularly consume media online, you're almost certainly seeing and reading more today than you know what to do with about the federal Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

SOPA and PIPA are the respective House and Senate versions of legislation designed to police websites, many of them based abroad, that sell stolen media content -- movies, music, and more -- to U.S. consumers. Silicon Valley's tech giants, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are fighting ferociously to stop the bills from going through. Most conventional media companies, particularly in Hollywood, support the bills.

In an ad you've probably seen pop up in your Facebook feed, Google says the bills would "censor the Internet." Wikipedia has gone dark for the day to protest the legislation. Searches on the widely used Internet encyclopedia redirect to a shadowy page that ominously declares, "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge."

Critics of SOPA and PIPA have good points. But a routine round of fact-checking shows that the depiction of the bills by the tech industry is misleading.

Both bills are complex, but there are two major points to understand about SOPA and PIPA:

1. Neither bill infringes on free speech. Rather, they make it illegal for American websites to drive business to other websites that have broken the law by stealing and purveying copyrighted material. That means no more links to or ads for thieving websites, and no more hosting of stolen content.

2. The enforcement mechanisms in SOPA and PIPA are draconian and poorly conceived. The provisions of the tougher SOPA, in particular, almost seemed design to give ammunition to critics who want to attack the bill as an example of Orwellian overreach. Perhaps the most notorious new enforcement power in SOPA would allow the federal government to order Internet service providers not to allow users to type the URLs of illegal sites into a web browser.

Both SOPA and PIPA are poorly written bills, and both need work on their enforcement provisions before being signed into law. I, for one, don't want my ISP, the federal government, or anyone else meddling with what I type in my own home, on my own computer. Opponents of the bills are correct when they decry their more excessively punitive aspects as a slippery slope that could lead to unwelcome government interference in the web. As I write this, it appears that some of the bills' major backers in Congress are realizing this and backing off.

But it's disingenuous to portray either bill as an overt effort at censorship, as Google and Wikipedia are doing. These companies don't care about your right to free speech. They care about financially onerous federal regulations that would affect their bottom line.

For tech firms that have made a fortune off of virtually unregulated content, much of it generated by their customers, SOPA and PIPA are not the first signs that a dark totalitarian night is descending upon the web. The bills are worrisome indications that the gravy train is slowing down.

Alex Howard offered one of the more intellectually honest criticisms of SOPA in a passage later cited by Jack Shafer:

Imagine a world where YouTube, Flickr, Facebook or Twitter had never been created due to the cost of regulatory compliance. Imagine an Internet where any website where users can upload text, pictures or video is liable for copyrighted material uploaded to it...

Here we get at the heart of Silicon Valley's beef: The argument that regulations preventing companies from engaging in or directly aiding criminal conduct would be so costly that they would impair the vital services these companies provide. The tech giants might be right. But their complaint is more reminiscent of BP than of Thomas Paine.

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Peter Jamison


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