Danger: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

We keep seeing articles about the new proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. I’ve long been opposed on principle to copyright piracy. As an author, webmaster and occasional utility software programmer, I have no sympathy for content pirates of any age or motivation. I agree that software piracy and other forms of intellectual property theft are a serious worldwide problem. On the other hand, previous industry efforts to combat piracy have been anally self-serving at the expense of end users. They penalized legitimate consumers and distributors,. They were flagrantly draconian. So, now that Congress is trying to get into the act again, I finally decided to read up on SOPA.

This bill would allow copyright holders or the U.S. Justice Department to seek a court order which goes against internet providers (instead of just against individual offenders) when websites are accused of “enabling” copyright violations or counterfeited goods.

The bill does require a court order before enforcement of its provisions. But by all accounts the bill is poorly written and vaguely worded. So it should not be too hard to find sympathetic judges to issue those orders based on personal interpretations of loosely worded law.

One of my questions was: what would prevent copyright holders from seeking redress now? The Millennium Digital Copyright Act currently allows copyright holders to ask internet providers to take down specific content that’s in obvious violation of copyright law. In fairness, many providers view this as infringement of First Amendment rights, or an impossibly onerous burden of policing and adjudication, or both. Most would not be expected to be too cooperative with efforts to involve them in efforts to censor their subscribers’ content in any way. And they have a point. This kind of censorship, so prevalent in the far east and parts of the middle east, is used to strengthen totalitarian regimes and neutralize or eliminate dissent. It appears SOPA would partially dismantle protections for websites that act in good faith.

We should not miss noticing this is just a new example of one segment of our “free enterprise system” trying to legally ensnare another segment into doing its bidding.

SOPA advocates claim the bill is not aimed at sites like YouTube which host all manner of content (usually excerpted snippets) uploaded by the public. But, SOPA does not appear to have any protections that would prevent action against a site on the YouTube model if a plaintiff felt like it.

So it is strange indeed that the SOPA bill was introduced by Lamar S. Smith, Republican U.S. Representative from Texas. Smith’s own website prominently banners his aim of “lifting the burden of regulations that is strangling small businesses.”

The “counterfeited goods” provision is also interesting. It has nothing to do with online piracy as the public understands it; it has to do with the intellectual property of the pharmaceutical industry (drug patents), such as Pfizer, which is involved in committee hearings. SOPA could completely block U.S. citizens from gaining online access to Canadian and other international pharmaceutical sites. It is currently already illegal to ship prescription drugs from outside the U.S. whether or not a legitimate doctor’s prescription is supplied. SOPA could prevent you from even viewing those sites:

True censorship:

SOPA would allow judges to order internet service providers to block access to certain websites to customers located in the United States by checking those customers’ IP address, a method known as IP blocking. There have been concerns that such an order would require those providers to engage in “deep packet inspection”, which involves analyzing all of the content being transmitted to and from the user, and which could lead to an invasion of those customers’ privacy. — Wikipedia

When Congress placed new restrictions on fees banks could charge retailers for debit card usage, a Bank of America spokesman howled this was “unwarranted interference” with the bank’s ability to conduct its business. BofA then announced its intent to impose a $5 monthly “swipe fee” on its customers, but backed in face of a howl of public protest and boycotts.

The Republican Party, the party of favor for corporations and big business, has long charged moderates and liberals with exactly this kind of “unwarranted interference,” going so far as to claim Big Government is destroying America. Yet, where their own business and lobbying interests are concerned, conservatives and their sponsoring corporations are capable of being even more interventionist than their more moderate political opponents. SOPA isn’t just bad law. SOPA doesn’t actually accomplish what it claims to do. What it instead accomplishes is disturbing. It’s a stealth attack on freedom – a very dangerous thing for business, the country, and informed citizens of any political persuasion.

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