It hasn’t been as blatant a display of ignorance as the late Sen. Ted Stevens’ description of the Internet as “a series of tubes,” but a new bill moving swiftly through the U.S. House demonstrates that Congress still doesn’t understand the web. The Stop Online Piracy Act — introduced in late October by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 10 Democrats and 14 Republicans that includes Arkansas’s favorite purveyor of wrong-headed reform, Rep. Tim Griffin — purports to protect American intellectual property, but would in fact curb online free expression and stifle Internet innovation. Every site that relies on user-generated content, from YouTube to Facebook to some site that doesn’t yet exist, could be imperiled if it becomes law.
SOPA (and a companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, co-sponsored by Sen. John Boozman) is backed by a cartel of deep-pocketed foes of digital innovation, chiefly Hollywood and the music industry. Just as it did when it fought the tape recorder, the VCR and the mp3 player, the cartel is trying to protect its eroding business by stifling technology rather than embracing it. Make no mistake, online piracy is a significant problem, but not one that warrants undoing the Internet as we know it. And that’s what ending the safe-harbor provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that gives immunity to sites that host user-generated content would accomplish.
Today, for instance, under the DMCA, when a mother posts a video of her baby dancing to Prince onto YouTube, it’s Prince and his record label’s responsibility to find and allege copyright infringement and order a takedown notice to YouTube (the bloodsuckers actually did that in 2007, though they ultimately lost a partial settlement to the mother, who filed a lawsuit against the label arguing that the music in the video was clearly fair use). SOPA would put the onus on YouTube and other websites to police their users and would require Internet Service Providers to inspect the traffic of all of its users. Search engines and ISPs would be required to block access to sites that host infringing content.
SOPA tries to whitewash its impact. The first clause of the bill says it shouldn’t be “construed to impose a prior restraint on free speech.” Though much of the bill claims to protect U.S. property from “foreign infringing sites,” one of the most egregious provisions sets up a system to punish all sites, including those in the U.S., “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.”
Here’s an example of how the system could work: Earlier this week, on our Arkansas Blog, we recounted the story of a woman who was attacked outside of Rave Motion Pictures theater in Little Rock by a man who tried to use a stun gun on her. The police report called the gun a Taser. The victim referred to it as a Taser. But a PR person from Taser International sent me an “URGENT headline & story correction” e-mail, pressing us to call the weapon a “stun gun” rather than a Taser, which is a registered trademark. We made an addendum to the post and put the word Taser in quotes in the headline. Under SOPA, if that move didn’t satisfy Taser International, it could send a notice to Alternative Weekly Network, which sells, on our behalf, a percentage of our online ads, and allege that we had harmed its intellectual property. Just because of the allegation, even one as meritless as this hypothetical, AWN would be required to stop serving our ads within five days or risk legal action.
SOPA would have a chilling effect on free speech and, as a new study by the consulting firm Booz & Co. demonstrates, stifle investment in new user-generated sites. If this bill passes, say goodbye to the next Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. A start-up could never weather the cost.
Last week after getting pilloried by commenters, Tim Griffin defended the bill on Facebook of all places with this nonsense: “This bill provides a simple, straightforward and constitutional means to protect our nation’s copyright holders from theft.”