Iowa View: Congress should rethink online piracy bill
Written by Professor Peter K. Yu Published in the Des Moines Register
In January, Wikipedia, Reddit and other internet companies launched a service blackout to protest the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This legislation — along with its Senate counterpart — seeks to target websites that facilitate online piracy and counterfeiting.
Shortly before this mass protest, the Obama administration noted its concern about the legislation’s impact on both the Internet and our longstanding free speech values.
Unable to push the legislation quickly through Congress, industry executives expressed their dissatisfaction with the administration, with some reportedly considering revoking their support for the President.
Although unsurprising, the industry executives’ position was rather immature. Just because one disapproves of the death penalty does not mean that one is not eager to fight crime.
Moreover, intellectual property protection is a largely nonpartisan issue. It would also be very unlikely that a Democrat presidential candidate did not understand the political implications for opposing laws that benefit Hollywood.
To a great extent, the recent developments reveal the changing nature of the digital copyright debate, the industry’s continued struggle to combat online piracy and the emerging political activism among internet users.
The size of the entertainment industry is rather small, compared with that of the computer and home electronics industries and the increasingly vocal and powerful online user community. Against the background of the Occupy Movement, a piece of legislation that favors a very small group of constituencies is naturally suspect.
More important, SOPA reflects the industry’s continued failure to convince the public of its need for stronger copyright protection. A few years ago, the movie industry told online filesharers not to download movies because they should not steal cars. That argument seemed logical until one noticed that nobody had ever downloaded a car.
The industry also reminds us that piracy has cost our economy billions of dollars. Those industry-produced figures, however, become questionable when another industry states that fair use and other limitations in the copyright system have contributed trillions of dollars to the same economy.
SOPA serves a very important goal — that is, to protect the valuable intellectual property assets of American rights holders. However, it is just a bad piece of legislation.
First, some of the proposed correction measures are highly disproportional to the wrong. Why should legitimate industries and internet users pay the price — economically or technologically — when the online community has some inevitable bad apples?
Second, U.S. Customs has already actively seized piratical and counterfeiting websites, including most recently those providing live streams of sports events. The administration has also initiated extradition proceedings against massive infringers from abroad.
Third, SOPA fails to take into consideration the many new technological and business models that have become popular among internet users. YouTube is exciting not because it facilitates copyright infringement, but because it provides an attractive platform for us to locate legitimate content unavailable on the market.
Fourth, while the proposed legislation would not break the internet — as some have claimed in exaggeration — it inflicts serious collateral damage. From erosion of free speech to creation of cybersecurity concerns, the statute’s benefits do not always compensate for its unintended harms.
Finally, SOPA could provide repressive governments with an internationally acceptable blueprint for developing internet censorship regulations. Should SOPA be adopted, it would indeed be hypocritical for us to complain about similar laws from abroad.
Congress has now agreed to reconsider the proposed legislation, but such politically attractive legislation is likely to resurface in the near future. Hopefully, the recent developments have taught our legislators some valuable lessons