Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate put forth a bill ostensibly to help protect copyright holders but which many Internet experts said could end up killing the Internet as we know it. Now the House has brought forth its own bill -- and it's even worse.
In May, we had the "Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011," or "PROTECT IP," itself a new version of the previous year's "Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act" (COICA).
Like COICA, PROTECT IP would have let the government seize the domain names of sites considered to be pirate sites. However, PROTECT IP went further, by also
- allowing corporations, as well as the government, to seek such injunctions
- by limiting the ability of search engines, and even social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, to link to sites considered to be infringing
- by encouraging third-party providers to shut down sites thought to be infringing, without any remedy for such sites, by providing liability protection for such actions
Currently, that bill has been held in Congress due to the actions of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
But now the House has put forth a similar bill, called variously the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or HR 3261, the ‘‘Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act of 2011’’, also known as the “E-PARASITE Act." And it's even worse. Though it ostensibly targets companies outside the U.S. that are ripping off U.S. companies -- of course, a laudable goal -- in reality it could just as easily be turned on U.S. companies as well, notes the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
"The bill sets up a system to punish sites allegedly 'dedicated to the theft of US property.' How do you get that label? Doesn’t take much: Some portion of your site (even a single page) must
- be directed toward the US, and either
- allegedly “engage in, enable or facilitate” infringement or
- allegedly be taking or have taken steps to “avoid confirming a high probability” of infringement."
And if that happens? Then the offending site gets cut off financially. Remember how PayPal cut off WikiLeaks, in a move that may result in WikiLeaks being bankrupt by the end of the year? Not only would that happen more often, but it would be required by law, within five days of receiving a notice.
Moreover, Internet service providers would have to comply with a blacklist of non-U.S. sites said to be infringing. According to Harvard Business Review:
"First, the US Government will set up a blacklist of international sites that it says are infringing IP rights. Regardless of whether the ISP believes the Government has it right or not — and the Government has already got it seriously wrong before — ISPs must comply with all sites that the US Attorney General lists. If they don't, they lose their safe harbor provisions. That is the equivalent of making phone carriers liable for conversations that are being made on their phone lines. But more broadly, this blacklist concept may sound familiar to you: it's been borrowed from China. The Government decides what you can and can't see on the web. ISPs have to comply with it, or they're liable."
But it's the financial cutoff that's particularly dangerous to the future of the Internet. "In short, rights holders can turn the funds off something they don't like, and the funds won't turn back on until after it has gone through the courts," HBR writes. "In the meantime: no income. Imagine that every time somebody was sued, they stopped receiving paychecks. That would make it kind of difficult to find the money to pay their lawyer, right? That is what this bill would do."
And this could be true for any site with user-generated content -- including Facebook, Google, Tumblr, eBay, or Wikipedia, warns the EFF:
"At a minimum, this means that any service that hosts user generated content is going to be under enormous pressure to actively monitor and filter that content. That’s a huge burden, and worse for services that are just getting started – the YouTubes of tomorrow that are generating jobs today. And no matter what they do, we’re going to see a flurry of notices anyway – as we’ve learned from the DMCA takedown process, content owners are more than happy to send bogus complaints. What happened to Wikileaks via voluntary censorship will now be systematized and streamlined – as long as someone, somewhere, thinks they’ve got an IP right that’s being harmed."
Here's an example from The Daily of how this might work: "Let’s say you’re using an online digital locker service like Dropbox to store your Microsoft Word files. Someone else on the site, however, is using it to house illegally downloaded MP3s. The record label finds out, approaches a judge and says, “Dropbox is inducing its users to commit copyright infringement. We request you block it, or we’ll go to MasterCard — which handles Dropbox’s money matters — or the site’s advertisers and legally demand that they stop facilitating the site’s inducement of copyright infringement.” The law can either shutter a website until it removes copyright-violating material or financially ruin it. In either scenario, your Word files are gone."
What to do? The Internet Commerce Association notes that the House Judiciary Committee will reportedly hold a hearing on the proposal on November 16, with the intention of holding a “markup” to report it out of Committee shortly thereafter. People who have concerns about this bill should immediately contact their Representative, and at a minimum request that the Judiciary Committee hold multiple balanced hearings to explore all the aspects ofthe bill before voting, the ICA says. A complete list of members of the House Judiciary Committee can be found at http://judiciary.house.gov/about/members.html, it adds.