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February 9, 2012

Throwing out the Baby with the SOPA Bathwater


By now you're familiar with the political odyssey known as SOPA, in which a cabal of content companies attempting to protect their antediluvian business models conspired with corrupt politicians to break the Internet's technical innerworkings, commit massive violations of our Constitution's protection of free speech, and run roughshod over the information economy, all the while providing aid and succor for China, Iran and North Korea as they block discussions about democracy over the Internet.

Alternatively, you may have heard that Internet companies have perfected piracy and counterfeiting as their "killer apps," and so they've engaged in a secret conspiracy to destroy the very concept of property rights over the Internet so that eventually you have nowhere else to turn for your entertainment but to their websites, where you can watch grainy, user-generated videos of skateboard accidents and homemade music videos, all obtained at no cost by the Internet companies and which will put us on the skids toward "Idiocracy."

Neither scenario is true, of course. Not even the first one.

Put simply, the U.S. Senate moved a bill intended to deny offshore websites trafficking in pirated and counterfeit goods access to U.S. consumers. The Senate bill drew mostly yawns but also a few constructive suggestions from affected industries and the policy community.

The House version of the bill, now infamously known as SOPA, was expected to clean up those problems, and indeed it could have. Instead, SOPA showed insensitivity to some of the concerns expressed about the Senate bill. When these objections were raised, the sponsors of the bill reacted stubbornly rather than constructively, and the Internet community decided to flex its political muscles.

Internet activists projected onto SOPA a variety of charges and accusations, some true but many false. At the peak of the hysteria, SOPA was like the final episode of the TV show "Lost"; it apparently could mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean. In the end, it didn't matter: Regarding SOPA, at least, our representatives in Washington demonstrated an atypical responsiveness to their constituents. They couldn't respond fast enough, in fact.

The problem now is that online activists, heady with success, have their torches lit for any attempt to do anything about criminal activity online, regardless of the merits or the means. Reining in the online distribution of illegal material is now, apparently, "censorship." And there really is a subset of online activists who are indeed out to undermine copyright, and they have been empowered in the process.

Rational policy thinkers must acknowledge that not every restriction is "censorship." Not every technical means "breaks the Internet." We must distinguish between legitimate threats to the Internet, and things that threaten only criminals.

As soon as the post-SOPA smoke has cleared, stakeholders of goodwill should go back to the drawing board and come up with an acceptable solution to the problem of offshore websites profiting from piracy and counterfeiting. Doing nothing about criminal activity shouldn't be an option, whether it occurs in the analog space or in the Internet space. Surely the Internet is not to be set aside as a lawless zone?


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