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Opinion: Online Piracy Bill Threatens Innovation, Web Freedom

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 10:00 AM

For years, media industry groups have been trying to push through legislation that stops online piracy. Whether you're someone who uses file-sharing or streaming sites or not, most people recognize that it is illegal and the industry does have a legal leg to stand on in looking for common sense ways for copyright owners to force sites to take down their content.

But that's only part of the picture with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Hidden behind that relatively benign name, and some rules that are fair, are rules that go far beyond what a copyright holder needs to stop unauthorized sharing of the material they own.

A list of major internet titans penned an open letter to Congress the other day, asking them not to pass SOPA. Some noteworthy names include Google founder Sergey Brin, Yahoo's David Filo and Jerry Yang, eBay's Pierre Omidyar, Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, and Craigslist's Craig Newmark. Last month several major internet companies, among them Google, Facebook, eBay, Mozilla (who makes FireFox), Yahoo & AOL, also came together to warn lawmakers about SOPA, saying it "poses a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation's cybersecurity."

Here is the crux of the latest open letter:

We've all had the good fortune to found Internet companies and nonprofits in a regulatory climate that promotes entrepreneurship, innovation, the creation of content and free expression online.

However we're worried that the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act—which started out as well-meaning efforts to control piracy online—will undermine that framework.
These two pieces of legislation threaten to:

  • Require web services, like the ones we helped found, to monitor what users link to, or upload. This would have a chilling effect on innovation;
  • Deny website owners the right to due process of law;
  • Give the U.S. Government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran; and
  • Undermine security online by changing the basic structure of the Internet.
We urge Congress to think hard before changing the regulation that underpins the Internet. Let's not deny the next generation of entrepreneurs and founders the same opportunities that we all had.

Defenders of the legislation claim that it will only be used against obvious offenders, but the wording of the law is so vague that even Facebook is afraid it might be a target, and it could be used to put people in jail for up to three years for doing things like singing their favorite songs on YouTube. The law can punish, and potentially even shut down, websites that display links to illegal copyrighted content. This poses such a threat to their business that Yahoo has dropped their membership with the US Chamber of Commerce, and for good reason. If a search on Yahoo, Google or Bing comes up with illegal content, in theory Yahoo, Google and Bing could be shut down or fined.

The same could potentially happen on Facebook, if one of your friends posts a link to illegal content, or YouTube if someone posts the video to a Metallica song. It's impossible for sites like YouTube, Facebook and other sites that host user generated content to look at even a fraction of their content and take down potentially copyrighted material, yet this is precisely what this law would require them to do.

And if you think this is an overstatement that some companies would use the legal system to do outlandish things to file sharers, ask the family who was sued by the recording industry for putting a video of their baby on YouTube because there was a copyrighted song playing on the radio in the background, and has sued families into bankruptcy for their tweener kid downloading a track that would have cost 99 cents on iTunes. These people have illustrated time and time again that they have no sense of fairness or proportion, and cannot be trusted with legal tools like this law would give them.

Passing this legislation would make the internet less secure, stifle innovation in the United States (leaving other nations to lead in a sector of the world economy where we are used to being at the forefront)—and do you really want to give these companies a tool that they could literally use to put teenagers singing copyrighted songs on YouTube in jail?

It's beyond me why any Congressperson would even consider this. We should all be thanking Democratic Senator from Oregon Ron Wyden for placing a hold on the bill, giving people the chance to organize and tell their representatives that voting for this would be unacceptable.

Solomon Kleinsmith is a former nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates.

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