If I may remove briefly my Israel-commentating hat and place a different one on my head (I’m an assistant professor of communications at NYU who teaches about copyright, commerce, and culture), and if you may briefly think of Tablet not as a magazine of Jewish life and culture but as a Website dedicated to producing tons of its own content on the fly, please indulge us. Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on a bill entitled the Stop Online Piracy Act. It is one of the most misguided pieces of legislation in recent memory, likely to cause considerable economic damage, stifle innovation, and deeply compromise freedom of speech.
If passed, SOPA will give the attorney general the power to block access to domain names suspected of infringing on copyrighted materials, and the bill is excruciatingly vague on what qualifies. Our current copyright law allows one to achieve immunity from this sort of thing if one fulfills a set of basic, easy-to-define criteria: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protects Websites like YouTube and Tumblr with an orderly system that allows copyright holders to file complaints and ask that infringing materials be taken down. SOPA, by contrast, will leave shut-down decisions entirely in the hands of judges and bureaucrats. And instead of removing individual items, it’ll make entire sites disappear. (The entertainment industry, the main force lobbying for the legislation, argues that such drastic measures are the only way to fight Internet pirates, the majority of whom operate outside U.S. jurisdiction. They’re wrong: all you’d have to do to access the Websites the government had blocked is type in their IP addresses rather than their URLs, something anyone who’s actually illegally downloading would know how to do.)
And SOPA would allow the entertainment industry to go to court against existing and upcoming Internet start-ups dedicated to user-generated content. Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who helped finance such current technology juggernauts as Twitter, Foursqaure, and Zynga, explained the risk neatly: “Big companies like Google and Apple can afford to defend themselves from litigious content companies,” he wrote. “But three person start-ups cannot. And Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were three person start-ups not so long ago. If they had not had the protection of the safe harbors of the DMCA, they could have been litigated out of business before they even had a chance to grow and develop into the powerhouses they have become.” In other words, the bill would give the dwindling entertainment industry the power to curb the booming Internet industry, among the few growth sectors still fueling our embattled economy.
And then there’s the bill’s blow to free speech—which Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, perhaps the nation’s leading constitutional law expert, argued in a memorandum to Congress violates the First Amendment. Or the fact that by passing the bill America’s Internet censorship practices would be indistinguishable from China’s.
Before it’s too late, then, let’s make sure we stop SOPA. Here’s a good place to start.
Internet Pioneers Oppose U.S. Online Piracy Bills [AFP/Google]