SOPA/PROTECT IP: Congress, under orders from Hollywood, wants to kill the internet
Since industry lobbyists basically run Congress, and since Congress is full of human fossils who are confused by any technology newer than a photocopier, Congress is always proposing some horrible new bill to censor, regulate, and/or stifle technological innovation on the internet.
Their latest effort is one of the worst yet, and it has a very high danger of passing. Not only is there a lot of Hollywood and record company money behind it, it also has huge bipartisan support, with like 40 Senate co-sponsors.
(which proves once again that bipartisanship is no guarantee that an idea is any good. Sometimes "Bipartisan" is code for "This idea has enough big-government overreach to please Democrats, AND enough violation of human rights to please Republicans." The Patriot Act had huge bipartisan support, for example.)
Anyway the Senate version of this horrible thing is called "PROTECT IP" (a really awkward backronym). The House version is called "E-PARASITES" (an even more awkward backronym) or "SOPA" (Stop Online Piracy Act).
The house version is supposedly worse, but the basic idea behind all of them is that the large media corporations who own a lot of copyrights want to be able to force any site off of the internet as soon as they accuse it of copyright infringement. For foreign sites, the copyright holder just has to tell the US attorney general "this site is infringing" and, with no chance for the site owners to defend themselves in court, the site is added to a nationwide blacklist of sites which all internet service providers will be forced to block. For domestic sites, the copyright holder just has to tell credit card companies and advertisers that the site is violating copyright; with no requirement that the copyright holder prove their case in court, the credit cards and advertisers would be required to cut off all business with the accused site within five days. Search engines would have to remove links to the accused site as well.
Even though I personally have my doubts that copyright infringement is morally equivalent to theft, let's assume for the sake of argument that it is. Let's assume that copyright infringement is a really serious problem and that stopping it is important enough that we need a sweeping new law to stop infringement on the internet. This bill still goes way too far. It has enormous potential for abuse.
The way it's written, even a single copyright-infringing post on a site by one of that site's users could lead to the entire site getting shut down. This would make many of the most popular web-based companies, services, and business models effectively impossible. And since the accuser doesn't have to prove in court that the accused site is violating copyright, there's no way to be sure that the application of the law will be restricted to fighting copyright infringement. Not only could a site get shut down for having one infringing file, it could get shut down for having zero infringing files, because a copyright holder made a false accusation. The site is treated as guilty until proven innocent.
By setting up a national blacklist -- it's been called a "Great Firewall of America" -- the proposed law would let corporations use the power of the government to censor any website they don't like, including vast swaths of perfectly legitimate content. If you care at all about free speech on the internet, this bill needs to be stopped or at least hevily modified.
The current law, the DMCA, has a "safe harbor" provision stating that when a copyright holder notices infringing content on a site, they can contact the site owner and request that the content be taken down. If the site owner takes the content down when requested, then they can't be sued for it. Even this compromise leaves room for legal harassment by copyright holders in the form of spurious takedown requests, but it's a basically functional compromise between internet freedom and the rights of media companies which has worked out OK for the last 13 years.
The new blacklist bill does away with safe harbor protection. Meaning if any user of a site posts infringing content, the whole site can get blacklisted. Once it's blacklisted, credit card companies and advertisers have 5 days to cut off all business with the blacklisted site.
There is no way that any site hosting user-generated content can survive under this legal regime, which makes a site liable for anything that any of its users might post. The action of a single user posting a single infringing file can get the whole site blacklisted.
Here's a real example: I posted video of myself singing Happy Birthday (a copyrighted song) on Vimeo. Under the current DMCA law, the copyright holder could make Vimeo take that video down. Under the new blacklist law, the copyright holder could force Vimeo out of business. Vimeo might have the resources to fight the case in court but they might not, and they're treated as guilty until proven innocent. Not only my illegal accordion playing, but all the millions of other completely legitimate videos hosted on the site, would be lost to the internet as part of a disproportionate punishment for the actions of one criminal individual.
This new legal regime would make hosting any user-generated content incredibly risky. No commercial website would dare to risk leting users post their own content when it could get the whole site blacklisted. User-generated content is more or less the backbone of every website started since 2004 or so. Some of the world's highest-traffic websites like Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia never could have gotten off the ground under the blacklist regime. Neither could any discussion forum, any wiki, or any blog that allows posting comments.
Maybe this is what the movie and music industry lobbyists pushing this bill actually want. They don't just want to get infringing videos off of YouTube: they would rather not have YouTube exist at all. They have a long history of trying to stamp out new technologies just because those technologies could be used for copyright infringement, never mind how many beneficial uses that technology has. For example, in 1976 Universal Studios and Disney tried to stifle the VCR by claiming in court that Sony (who had just invented Betamax) should be responsible for any infringement (e.g. taping of movies) committed by home Betamax users. (They lost).
The end of user-generated content on the web would be bad enough. But that's not all! SOPA/PROTECT IP has even worse provisions lurking inside.
The bill makes "streaming" (whatever that means) copyrighted work over the internet a federal felony punishable by up to 5 years of jail time. It's ambiguous whether the poster of the content or the hosting site is the one doing the "streaming" according to the bill. If it's the poster, I could go to jail because I sang Happy Birthday to my sister over the internet. If it's the hosting site, I could go to jail because one of my commenters used my site to sing Happy Birthday over the internet and I didn't take it down fast enough.
So far I've been talking how far the bill overreaches in the case of posts that actually infringe copyright. But because of the lack of oversight and lack of due process, website owners are still going to have to worry even if nothing copyright-infringing ever gets posted on their site. You can get put on the blacklist without a trial. The accuser doesn't have to prove that you infringed their copyright. Once they accuse you, you're assumed guilty until proven innocent. You can take the copyright holder to court to try to get your blacklisting overturned, but by that point the damage to your business has been done, and how many smalltime website operators will have the resources to fight Viacom and Time-Warner in court anyway?
What about the many cases where part of a copyrighted work is used in a way that's legal under fair use doctrines -- like parody, reviews, etc. Are copyright owners going to be able to use this new law to shut down people doing completely legal and legitimate things with their work? They'll be able to shut you down just by accusing you, and the cost of fighting them in court to prove that your use was fair use will be far too high.
They could even accuse you in cases where you've done nothing wrong, either due to honest mistakes or malevolence, and suddenly you have to choose between trying to take them to court or giving up on having a website.
(It's worth remembering why the right to a fair trial, with the burden of proof on the accuser, is such a good legal principle to stand by. It's not just because we believe that imprisoning an innocent person is morally worse than letting a guilty person go free. It's also because without this protection, accusations are a weapon that can be leveled at anyone, based on grudges, unpopular political opinions, anything at all. The way that accusations of witchcraft were used to terrorize women in puritan New England, or accusations of counter-revolutionary ideas were used to terrorize people in communist countries.)
The blacklist won't be restricted to real copyright violations. Once you establish a blacklist there's pretty much no way it won't be used for censorship, repression, and harassment of legitimate sites.
For domestic sites, the blacklist cuts off their sources of income. But for foreign sites, it's even worse: the blacklist would force all American ISPs and DNS servers to prevent the URL from resolving, blocking the site from being seen at all by anybody inside the USA. This is much the same as the way China prevents its citizens from seeing foreign sites like Wikipedia and Blogger.
Again, there's no requirement that the copyright holder prove the site is infringing, and no chance for the site owners to defend themselves in court. The copyright holder just goes to the Attorney General and gets a court order saying "block this", and then all the ISPs are forced to block it.
How long before this gets abused to censor sites for reasons that have nothing to do with copyright infringement? Say some foreign news site like the BBC or Al-Jazeera publishes a story critical of the U.S. government. The government makes a bogus claim of copyright infringement and uses their new blacklist powers to block the BBC or Al-Jazeera from the American internet. Now the U.S. government is controlling what its citizens are allowed to see and hear from other countries.
This is why it's so dangerous to let the government have the power of a national blacklist. Even if the stated purpose of the blacklist is to fight copyright infringement, it is a giant invitation to censorship.
Another small but terrible detail of the bill is that it criminalizes software that would let people get around the blacklist. Software written by American free-speech advocates to help, say, Chinese people get around government censorship of the internet could now, ironcially, be illegal in America.
90 legal professors have signed a letter calling PROTECT IP unconstitutional because it supresses speech without an adversarial hearing -- i.e. the accused gets no chance to defend themselves in court before being blacklisted off the internet.
The letter says the law "represents the biggest threat to the Internet in its history".
We have to fight this thing.