Congress is considering the most talked-about copyright legislation in a decade, known as Protect IP (PIPA) in the Senate and Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) in the House. Today, Mozilla announced that we’ll join with other sites in a virtual strike to protest PIPA/SOPA.
SOPA makes all of us potential criminals if we don’t become the enforcement arm of a new government regulatory and policing structure. SOPA does not target websites serving up unauthorized content. SOPA does not target people accessing those websites. SOPA targets all the rest of us. These costs are significant, wide-ranging and long lasting. To understand more clearly what SOPA does and the range of consequences, it’s helpful to use an analogy from the physical world where we all have many years of experience.
Assume there’s a corner store in your neighborhood that rents movies. But the movie industry believes that some or even all of the videos in that store are unauthorized copies, so that they’re not being paid when people watch their movies. What should be done?
SOPA/PIPA don’t aim at the people trying to get to the store. SOPA/ PIPA don’t penalize or regulate the store itself. SOPA and PIPA penalize us if we don’t block the people trying to get to the store.
The solution under the proposed bills is to make it as difficult as possible to find or interact with the store. Maps showing the location of the store must be changed to hide it(1). The road to the store must be blocked off so that it’s difficult to physically get to there(2). Directory services must unlist the store’s phone number and address(3). Credit card companies(4) would have to cease providing services to the store. Local newspapers would no longer be allowed to place ads for the video store(5). And to make sure it all happens, any person or organization who doesn’t do this is subject to penalties(6). Even publishing a newsletter that tells people where the store is would be prohibited by this legislation(7).
This is what SOPA and PIPA would impose in the online world. It’s very different than targeting the owner of the video store directly. The obligations to make websites hard to find apply to all citizens and businesses. Each one of us is subject to punishment and fines if we don’t follow these prohibitions. And, because SOPA/PIPA create a new regulatory structure, we become subject to punishment without the due process protections citizens normally enjoy.
Supporters say they are only targeting foreign websites outside US jurisdiction. However the burden of compliance that falls on all of us is not any less because the website servers are elsewhere. And in any case, many US companies with be affected through their locally-identified sites (for example, amazon.co.uk.)
Despite their over-reaching nature, PIPA and SOPA may not even be effective at stopping online piracy. People can still enter the actual Internet Protocol address of a blocked domain name. Sites can register new domain names. Continuously sanitizing the Internet of any mention or link to bad sites is a like the infamous game of “whack-a-mole.”
SOPA and PIPA are dangerous. So, what to do?
- Reject SOPA / PIPA soundly.
- Congress must not adopt the SOPA position of protecting content AT ALL COSTS. Congress must represent all of us.
- Focus specifically on the holes in today’s enforcement tools. Why are thePirateBay.ORG or MegaUpload.COM still operating? Why aren’t they part of the definition of “foreign site” in SOPA/PIPA?
- Be very, very cautious about creating new liability because we’re unwilling to punish the people accessing unauthorized content
Over time, developments in two areas are likely to make this issue recede dramatically. One will be the development of new business models that embrace technology, and consumer expectations of universal access. The second will be new technology that makes it easier for content owners to limit access. Content owners can decide if they want unlimited audiences and alternative revenue sources, of if they want potentially limited audiences and a pay-for-view revenue model. Today we are fighting over what to do in the meantime. The content industry has convinced many that “something must be done.” Even if one agrees with this (which many do not), one thing is clear.
Protecting content at all costs is a disaster.