Internet piracy doesn’t require Act of Congress like this

Bill Wilson

What began as an attempt to restrain foreign piracy on the Internet has morphed into a domestic “kill switch” on First Amendment freedom in the fastest-growing corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Proposed federal legislation purporting to protect on-line intellectual property would also impose sweeping new government mandates on Internet service providers — a positively Orwellian power grab that would permit the U.S. Justice Department to shut down any internet site it doesn’t like (and cut off its sources of income) on nothing more than a whim.

Under the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) the federal government — which is prohibited constitutionally from abridging free speech or depriving its citizens of their property without due process — would engage in both practices on an unprecedented scale. And in establishing the precursor to a taxpayer-funded “thought police,” it would dramatically curtail technology investment and innovation – wreaking havoc on our economy.

Consider this: Under the proposed legislation all that’s required for government to shut down a specific website is the mere accusation that the site unlawfully featured copyrighted content. Such an accusation need not be proven — or even accompanied by probable cause. All that an accuser (or competitor) needs to do in order to obtain injunctive relief is point the finger at a website.

Additionally, SOPA would grant regulators the ability to choke off revenue to the owners of these newly classified “rogue” websites by accusing their online advertisers and payment providers as co-conspirators in the alleged “piracy.” Again, no finding of fact would be required — the mere allegation of impropriety is all that’s needed to cut the website’s purse strings.

Who’s vulnerable to this legislation?

“Any website that features user-generated content or that enables cloud-based data storage could end up in its crosshairs,” writes David Sohn, senior policy council at the Center on Democracy and Technology. “(Internet Service Providers) would face new and open-ended obligations to monitor and police user behavior. Payment processors and ad networks would be required to cut off business with any website that rights-holders allege hasn’t done enough to police infringement.”

The Center’s president and CEO, Leslie Harris, points a bleak picture of the impact SOPA and its companion legislation in the U.S. Senate would have on the world wide web, arguing that the legislation would “(jeopardize) the continued development of powerful new forums for free expression and political dissent.”

“If these bills pass, there will be major collateral damage to Internet innovation, on-line free expression, the inner workings of Internet security, and user privacy,” Harris writes.

Google’s public policy director Bob Boorstin takes it one step further, arguing that the bills “would put the U.S. government in the very position we criticize repressive regimes for doing — all in the name of copyright.”

The proliferation of free expression on the Internet has spawned a vibrant new marketplace of ideas — toppling the old legacy media construct and ushering in an era of enhanced accountability in which thousands of new voices provide heightened scrutiny of our elected officials.

Obviously, silencing those voices and stifling the web’s innovative potential would exact a heavy toll on this new accountability — and on the U.S. economy. In a letter urging their colleagues to oppose SOPA, U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Darrell Issa speak to this very concern.

“On-line innovation and commerce were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2004 to 2009,” Lofgren and Issa write. “Before we impose a sprawling new regulatory regime on the Internet, we must carefully consider the risks that it could pose for this vital engine of our economy.”

Safeguarding intellectual property is certainly an important goal. The ability to protect one’s work product is vital to the proper functioning of the free market — and key to preserving its innovative potential. However in enhancing property protections, we cannot permit the government to trample over our right to free speech and due process.

SOPA is the equivalent of curing a headache with a guillotine. It may stop piracy, but it would shut down our economy and unconstitutionally erode our most basic freedoms in the process.

Bill Wilson is president of Americans for Limited Government.