When the US Congress returns from its winter recess this month, it will resume hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). For those of use with a vested interest in the outcome of these hearings — which is to say, every human being with access to the Internet — the Louisville Digital Association would like to urge you to speak out against SOPA and urge your representatives to vote against it.
SOPA is designed to protect intellectual property against unlawful online infringement. Put more simply, it’s designed to shut down websites that help users download music, games and movies without paying for them. Regardless of whether you believe Internet infringement can or should be curtailed, we, the board of the Louisville Digital Association, submit that the remedies for infringement made legal by SOPA are a cure far worse than the disease.
SOPA requires that any site accused of infringing on intellectual property rights get the equivalent of an internet death penalty. It’s a death in four parts:
- The infringing site’s DNS entry is blocked in the United States
- The infringing site is omitted from search results served in the United States
- The infringing site is blocked from receiving any funds from payment processors in the United States
- The infringing site is blocked from US online ad networks
That may seem to many a fair remedy against pirate sites that do nothing but serve up bootleg content from foreign servers. Unfortunately, SOPA’s definition of an “infringing site” is pretty vague, and could — and likely will — include any site that hosts even remotely infringing content.
That means Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia and pretty much any web site with a comments function is a potential violator that the US Justice Department can simply make go away. If even one anonymous user posts just one unauthorized music file to any of the above sites, those sites could be construed as infringing.
Still, even if we trust the Department of Justice to be judicious about which sites are hit with the SOPA death penalty, the larger problem with SOPA is that it dismantles the safe harbor protections of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Under the DMCA, websites are not liable for the content posted on them by their users. That means I can’t sue Facebook because of your Facebook posts, I can only sue you. If I upload a stolen Time Warner song to Youtube, Time Warner’s beef is with me, not Youtube. And under the current DMCA, if Time Warner finds my offending upload, they can simply ask Youtube to take it down, and Youtube must. That seems a reasonable remedy, but SOPA reverses the burden of liability from the poster to the host site.
Strip away safe harbor, and now Facebook is obligated to proactively monitor, moderate and possibly delete any and every post I make on my profile. The same goes for every Wikipedia edit, Youtube video, Flickr photo or Dropbox file I upload to those sites. The same people and technologies that clumsily serve me “targeted” ads now get to turn their skills to censoring my online posts against any potential infringement. Failure to do so means those sites can be forced offline, perhaps permanently.
That’s a recipe for crude algorithms randomly deleting my posts because of ambient background music in a video clip, or a random logo in the foreground of a photograph. It turns the web from a place where sites promote unfettered communication, to an online nanny state where every submission has to be preemptively scanned by the IP police. That’s bad for business, and it’s bad for society. No amount of protected IP revenue is worth a social cost that high.
There’s a place for intellectual property protections online, but SOPA isn’t it.