Two bills intended to stem digital piracy of movies, software, and music are winding their way through both houses of the Congress. House Resolution 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was debated November 16 in the House Judiciary Committee. Its sister bill in the Senate, the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (Protect IP), was introduced last May.
Also called the Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act (E-PARASITE Act), SOPA has generated opposition from a wide-range of groups, including far-left Public Knowledge, libertarian Electronic Freedom Foundation, light-regulatory advocates TechFreedom, and the free-market Heartland Institute.
Both bills would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders to shut down Web sites accused of infringing copyright by selling pirated music and movies or counterfeit products such as clothing and medicine. Of the two bills, SOPA is more far-reaching as it would permit the DOJ to target Web sites accusing of “enabling or facilitating” copyright infringement.
Targets Legitimate Web Sites
SOPA opponents say the bill would allow copyright holders to seek court orders targeting legitimate Web sites that feature user-generated content. As the bill is written currently, the DOJ could seek court orders requiring domain name registrars and ISPs to block U.S. access to sites accused of infringing copyright, which may prompt Internet users to attempt to bypass such blocks that may result in security issues.
“The bill makes three grave errors,” said Larry Downes, senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom. “First, SOPA fails to identify the specific problems for which existing laws are inadequate. Second, it favors broad remedies over narrowly-tailored solutions. Third, it commissions a proper cost-benefit analysis but only after the bill becomes law—too late to ensure that SOPA strikes the right balance.”
SOPA and its sister-bill in the Senate, Protect IP, are prime examples of the federal government trying to solve one problem and creating a lot more, said Marc Oestreich, legislative analyst for technology policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News. “Rather than use traditional means to track down copyright violators, these bills shirk responsibility by tasking private enterprise with the real problem solving. Well, private enterprise has no business acting as the enforcement arm for these crimes.”
Oestreich continued: “SOPA pushes burdensome tasks off on Internet service providers, online payment processors, and search engines. What do consumers get? A truly less free and open Internet and a likely increased cost for using many services,” he said.
“Perhaps scariest of all,” Oestreich warned, “SOPA gives an unprecedented private right of action to patent and copyright holders to pursue legal action. Victims and patent trolls alike will likely overwhelm the private companies now tasked with enforcement. When they don’t comply we’ll see a mess of ugly lawsuits. Its time to get back to the drawing board on this idea.”
Unwarranted Burdens on ISPs
Downes says the two bills place unwarranted burdens on ISPs. “Last summer, House leaders assured Silicon Valley they would correct serious defects in Protect IP—defects that could cause long-term unintended damage to Internet innovation,” Downes said. “Instead, SOPA replaces unworkable technology mandates with vague standards and open-ended requirements. The House bill, in an effort to future-proof the legislation, has actually made it much worse,” he said.
“SOPA would give the Department of Justice and media companies unwarranted and unprecedented new powers to shape the structure and content of the Internet,” Downes explained. “How far the new law actually goes will be left to prosecutors, lawyers and federal district judges.”
Downes concluded: “Just as many Congressmen were rightly skeptical of the Federal Communication Commission’s ‘net neutrality’ regulations, Members should be equally cautious with their own efforts to micromanage the Internet ecosystem, one of the economy’s few bright spots.”
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.