Sometimes you wonder if Congress lives in the real world. With such Internet companies as Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft driving what little economic recovery we’re enjoying, Congress could short-circuit the whole Internet — literally.
The major legislation at issue is HR3261, commonly called SOPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act. It is sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and was introduced on Oct. 26. Say, wasn’t a Republican majority put back in charge of the House of Representatives a year ago to reduce government’s interference in our lives?
SOPA is being supported by many content manufacturers worried about copyright infringements on the Internet. These companies include Macmillan Publishers, Netflix and Viacom; other supporters include such trade groups as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.
If you play around enough on the Internet, you come into contact with pirated movies, books and recordings. According to the bill’s supporters, this means losses of jobs in these industries because, instead of buying the music legally, people rip it off the Net.
The SOPA scheme, in the congressional summary, “would establish a system for taking down websites that the Justice Department determines to be dedicated to copyright infringement. The (Department of Justice) or the copyright owner would be able to commence a legal action against any site they deem to have ‘only limited purpose or use other than infringement,’ and the DOJ would be allowed to demand that search engines, social networking sites and domain-name services block access to the targeted site.”
So, let’s say you put up a copyrighted picture of Rep. Smith on your blog and criticize his policies. Under current copyright law, if he asks you take down the picture, you would have to, but your blog stays up. Under SOPA, the government could just shut your blog down.
“We’ve built a vibrant Internet that’s a trusted system,” Corynne McSherry told us; she’s director of intellectual property at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “SOPA would balkanize the Internet.” She pointed out that not just the government, but private information companies could shut down allegedly offending sites. So, you could end up with several Internets, depending on who approved what — basically defeating the benefit of the whole world being interconnected.
She said it’s hypocritical that the government is considering SOPA at a time when “the State Department is pushing China, Iran and other countries, saying, ‘Don’t mess with the Internet.’” These countries commonly block sites critical of their repression of dissent.
SOPA also could slam small businesses, McSherry warned, which don’t have the large legal departments of big companies. Even a minor copyright violation means small firms “could be hit with economic penalties that would choke them off.”
Worse, Internet service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, would have to monitor everything people put on the web, or even in emails, to make sure no violations occurred. This would be a major violation of privacy.
We believe that, however imperfect, existing laws are adequate to protect copyright holders. We’ve noticed, for example, that when copyrighted material is uploaded to YouTube, it often is taken down quickly. Congress should skip this new attack on our liberties and get back to its real job of cutting the budget deficit and the national debt.