SOPA Might Be Bad Policy, but It's Not Censorship

wikipediablackout1.jpg
If you're reading this, chances are that you regularly consume media online. And if you regularly consume media online, you're almost certainly seeing and reading more today than you know what to do with about the federal Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

SOPA and PIPA are the respective House and Senate versions of legislation designed to police websites, many of them based abroad, that sell stolen media content -- movies, music, and more -- to U.S. consumers. Silicon Valley's tech giants, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are fighting ferociously to stop the bills from going through. Most conventional media companies, particularly in Hollywood, support the bills.

In an ad you've probably seen pop up in your Facebook feed, Google says the bills would "censor the Internet." Wikipedia has gone dark for the day to protest the legislation. Searches on the widely used Internet encyclopedia redirect to a shadowy page that ominously declares, "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge."

Critics of SOPA and PIPA have good points. But a routine round of fact-checking shows that the depiction of the bills by the tech industry is misleading.

Both bills are complex, but there are two major points to understand about SOPA and PIPA:

1. Neither bill infringes on free speech. Rather, they make it illegal for American websites to drive business to other websites that have broken the law by stealing and purveying copyrighted material. That means no more links to or ads for thieving websites, and no more hosting of stolen content.

2. The enforcement mechanisms in SOPA and PIPA are draconian and poorly conceived. The provisions of the tougher SOPA, in particular, almost seemed design to give ammunition to critics who want to attack the bill as an example of Orwellian overreach. Perhaps the most notorious new enforcement power in SOPA would allow the federal government to order Internet service providers not to allow users to type the URLs of illegal sites into a web browser.

Both SOPA and PIPA are poorly written bills, and both need work on their enforcement provisions before being signed into law. I, for one, don't want my ISP, the federal government, or anyone else meddling with what I type in my own home, on my own computer. Opponents of the bills are correct when they decry their more excessively punitive aspects as a slippery slope that could lead to unwelcome government interference in the web. As I write this, it appears that some of the bills' major backers in Congress are realizing this and backing off.

But it's disingenuous to portray either bill as an overt effort at censorship, as Google and Wikipedia are doing. These companies don't care about your right to free speech. They care about financially onerous federal regulations that would affect their bottom line.

For tech firms that have made a fortune off of virtually unregulated content, much of it generated by their customers, SOPA and PIPA are not the first signs that a dark totalitarian night is descending upon the web. The bills are worrisome indications that the gravy train is slowing down.

Alex Howard offered one of the more intellectually honest criticisms of SOPA in a passage later cited by Jack Shafer:

Imagine a world where YouTube, Flickr, Facebook or Twitter had never been created due to the cost of regulatory compliance. Imagine an Internet where any website where users can upload text, pictures or video is liable for copyrighted material uploaded to it...

Here we get at the heart of Silicon Valley's beef: The argument that regulations preventing companies from engaging in or directly aiding criminal conduct would be so costly that they would impair the vital services these companies provide. The tech giants might be right. But their complaint is more reminiscent of BP than of Thomas Paine.

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Troy McCormick
Troy McCormick

 The existing laws have been abused and made single moms sell their houses to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple music files download by their kids or a neighbor that has used their wifi, even in cases that their child already owned the CDs and just wanted them added to their iPod. Even when lawmakers promised the laws would not allow for that. So HOW THE HELL can you be such a fool Peter, to think that a small fry wont get shaked down by the RIAA or federal government for posting a link to a cite he likes on his website because they may be using a fair use picture or parody that Tristar or what have you dislikes? It might not be the Great Firewall but it pushes us closer and allows more oppressive gagging laws easier to swallow silently in a cowardly new world. I sincerely hope you examine your naivete before making such spurious claims in a medium that is supposed to support democracy and truthful vital information for your fellow citizens!

Mrchild
Mrchild

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CptZEEP
CptZEEP

Wow - you think Wikipedia is for profit? Are you SURE you're in San Francisco? You sound like a hick from flyover country! WOW!

symbolset
symbolset

It is censorship, and we don't do that here.  As much as I find your position on this issue abhorrent, I would defend your right to have your say.  I would argue with you, but if someone wants to shut you up they've got a fight with me and every other right-thinking American.

If you will not stand against censorship you're taking the gag in your own mouth.  When you cannot speak, how can you fix any other social ill?  What evils come then?

This is even worse than government censorship because in one smooth motion the government seizes the popular press of the day - "the internet" and also turns the gag over to private industry.  Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his grave.

You think you are on one side of this issue, but believe me: you don't want censorship.

Peter Jamison
Peter Jamison

SymbolSet,

Your statement here illustrates, I think, the extent to which tech companies have succeeded in distorting the discussions over SOPA and PIPA. Nothing in the bills would have *any impact* on what is said in forums like these. I appreciate your willingness to defend my position while disagreeing with it -- but unless I accompany my argument with an illegally downloaded episode of Entourage, there's no need for you to do so. 

Regards,Peter Jamison

symbolset
symbolset

To illustrate my point i'd like to direct your attention to the bitly link gl6Fom.  That link could lead to anything.  It might lead tomorrow to some link it doesn't lead to today.  And yet if it ever once led to a site that compromised IP, not only would your opinion and mine be silenced  - but the entire domain you use as a platform for your position would be squelched.  You would not be able to make these arguments.  You would be made an unperson.  All of Disqus would be revoked, whether it were relevant or not.

That's what censorship is.  To defend censorship is to take the gag into your own mouth.  So forgive me if I'm not patient with the rest of what you have to say, but you seem to advocate silencing even yourself so I need not further listen as you're OK with silencing you.

Willbradley1
Willbradley1

Does anyone know about an international petition or something we can sign? What's the best thing to do in protest

mike
mike

The assertion here that Wikipedia is blacked out for selfish reasons implies that you have done absolutely no research on it. A) Wikipedia is non-profit. How exactly are they going to be raking in bundles of cash through piracy? B) The blackout was proposed by editors, and was not the brainchild of any employee of Wikipedia. Around 1800 editors participated in an unprecedented discussion which led them to overwhelmingly agree to the idea that Wikipedia should make a statement. As for your other points, you are nitpicking: Of course the bill isn't overtly about censorship, but it puts the machinations in place to make censorship of the internet possible. If we legislated based on good intentions, this country would have gone Orwellian long ago. It is congress's responsibility (as our elected representatives who should vote as we wish, last I checked) to ACTIVELY protect our free speech, and not allow needless (and ineffective; DNS blocking would do little or nothing to stop piracy) measures which could be used to infringe upon it.

EssEffOh
EssEffOh

Just want to reiterate AA's point. Wikipedia has no bottom line. It is a nonprofit foundation funded by donors.  They have no profit motive whatsoever for opposing these bills.  Can you please correct the erroneous assertion in the post that these bills would affect Wikipedia's "bottom line."

AA
AA

Wikimedia Foundation is nonprofit, they're not worried about their "bottom line."

Peter Jamison
Peter Jamison

Dear AA,

Respectfully, I would suggest it's naive to assert that because the Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit organization one can conclude that it's not concerned with the financial impact of federal regulation on its sources of revenue. Nonprofits obviously don't make a "profit," pay dividends to shareholders, and benefit from certain tax exemptions. But they're still businesses whose means of survival can be harmed or crippled by the cost of regulatory compliance. Nonprofit status, here as in many other cases, is not a cloak of virtue.

Regards,Peter Jamison

symbolset
symbolset

Time to give again anyway.  They earned it.

Tim Harrington
Tim Harrington

"…it's disingenuous to portray either bill as an overt effort at censorship, as Google and Wikipedia are doing. These companies don't care about your right to free speech. They care about financially onerous federal regulations that would affect their bottom line."

Censorship is the end result even if it is not the primary objective. I don't care WHY they want the power to shut down web sites without due process, I care that they want the power to shut down web sites without due process.

Cassady Toles
Cassady Toles

So, as someone to whom due process actually means something.  Right now, corporations can force a website to delete content, break links, or take similar actions to restrict your access to copywritten material.  It requires a court order. 

What this would do is make issuing those orders the task of an administrative agency instead of a court.  That's still due process.  There's still a standard of proof that needs to be established, the only question is who decides.

Richard P.
Richard P.

Is it due process if people don't get a chance to defend themselves? Is is due process if it's taken out of the courts at all- they're the ones who are supposed to decide who is and is not guilty of breaking the law?

Tim Harrington
Tim Harrington

Clearly you have a very different idea of what "due process" means than I do.

Jesse Powell
Jesse Powell

Let's see--do I want a court of law or a bureaucrat in a federal agency deciding which websites can remain on the internet and what kind of content websites can publish?

Do I even have to answer this question? 

Jesse Powell
Jesse Powell

"...SOPA would allow the federal government to order Internet service providers not to allow users to type the URLs of illegal sites into a web browser."

Um ... how exactly is that not censorship? Who decides what an "illegal site" is BTW. Talk about Orwellian. 

I'm a fan of your writing. But this post smacks of empty contrarianism.  

Peter Jamison
Peter Jamison

Dear Jesse,

Per the legislation, an illegal site is one offering stolen content in violation of U.S. copyright laws. Were you aware that the federal government already has the authority to shut down such sites that are based domestically? As I state in the post, I believe the URL-redirection provision of SOPA is excessively intrusive, but it's not a curb on free speech. It's a means of preventing access to stolen goods. In lieu of the ability to permanently close foreign sites that purvey content illegally, do you have a better suggestion for preventing them from reaching American consumers?

Regards,Peter Jamison

Tim Harrington
Tim Harrington

"As I state in the post, I believe the URL-redirection provision of SOPA is excessively intrusive, but it's not a curb on free speech. It's a means of preventing access to stolen goods."

Peter,

Shutting down an entire website does prevents access to all content hosted there, legal and illegal alike. Think of how many TV clips have been illegally uploaded to YouTube or how many copyrighted photos have been circulated on Facebook. Shutting down either of those sites would surely prevent a certain amount of copyright violation, but it would also be a huge blow to the overwhelming amount of legal speech that takes place on those forums.

Tim Harrington
Tim Harrington

"It's the smaller sites I'd worry about."

Even YouTube and Facebook started out small. If SOPA and PIPA had been in place earlier those sites might have been squashed long before they became the internet juggernauts they are today. I'm not especially concerned about the well-being of existing popular sites, I'm concerned that legislation like this could prevent the next generation of innovative web companies from developing in the first place.

Richard P.
Richard P.

Getting Youtube of Facebook shut down would be an absolute PR disaster, and it's not exactly like Youtube doesn't have measures to report and have taken down material that infringes copyright, copyright deals with rights owners, and so on.

Not to mention Youtube is owned by Google, and Facebook is a prettybig concern now, so anyone trying to take them down would have a fight on their hands.

It's the smaller sites I'd worry about.

Jesse Powell
Jesse Powell

Calling the potential effects of the act  "intrusive" versus calling it "censorship" feels like a pretty contrived distinction--especially in this case. The idea that a new law would literally bar me from entering a web address into my browser sounds like a textbook example of censorship to me. That you call it "intrusive" instead seems like tomato, tomahto. 

Sure, if used judiciously and benignly, the powers granted to the government in this act would not necessarily amount to censorship--ie, the shutting down / blacking out of legitimate websites. Just like the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without charges in the recently passed Defense Authorization Bill won't necessarily lead to unconstitutional arrests. But I really don't trust the feds to wield those kinds of powers benignly. Do you?      

Counterpoint
Counterpoint

Your whole premise is a bit naive and seems to lack an understanding of our legal system.  Illegality is determined by our justice system not by the RIAA or MPAA.  A record company lawyer saying a site is "illegal" does not make it so, yet under these new laws it wouldn't matter as ISPs and other content providers would be forced to err on the side of censoring any questionable site or post out of fear of a lawsuit, and thus plenty of legitimate content will be censored.  See:

http://www.techdirt.com/articl... It is censorship.  Plain and simple.

Tjames
Tjames

It seems "illegal" or "breaking the law" is determined after a certain amount of due process. These laws seem to want to punish or censor before this due process goes forward. It's not enough to point at certain content and take action.

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

"As I state in the post, I believe the URL-redirection provision of SOPA is excessively intrusive, but it's not a curb on free speech."

With SOPA, a corporation only has to claim copyright infringement has occurred; they do not have to back this assertion up with evidence.  Shutting down a website without due process is NOT the American way and it IS censorship.  Your attempt to whitewash the elimination of due process doesn't change the fact that SOPA is censorship by and for corporate America.

"In lieu of the ability to permanently close foreign sites that purvey content illegally, do you have a better suggestion for preventing them from reaching American consumers?"

Is this even a problem in the first place?  All the hard data points to a resounding NO.  So if piracy isn't a problem, why are we trying to fix it?

anonymous
anonymous

showing 0 comments

yeah theres a good reason for that

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