Wide Backlash Greets Internet Antipiracy Bill

Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - 13:41

Groups from both ends of the political spectrum—and everything in between—have come out against a congressional bill that would require internet service providers to police users’ online activities for potential copyright infringement and would empower the U.S. attorney general to order the removal from the domain name system of any website that “engages in, enables, or facilitates” infringement.

Introduced October 26 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) has a number of high-profile supporters, among them members of the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical companies, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups claim the internet currently challenges their ability to innovate because of piracy threats to their proprietary content.

Critics say that, while internet piracy is a legitimate concern, provisions in the current bill are far too overreaching and would result in a gross invasion of users’ privacy and strip online creativity and growth.

On November 15, the American Library Association, along with several civil liberties organizations, wrote a letter (PDF file) to House leaders, saying SOPA would set an “irreversible precedent that encourages the fracturing of the internet, undermines freedom of expression worldwide, and has numerous other unintended and harmful consequences.”

For example, the bill would grant internet service providers the ability to flag something as innocent as a video of a person singing a favorite song, according to the Free Press Action Fund. SOPA would also permit a private company to sue service providers for even briefly and unwittingly hosting content that it deemed an infringement on copyright.

Corey Williams, associate director of ALA’s Washington Office, blogged November 15 that SOPA raised specific copyright-related concerns for libraries, one of which is that the bill would impose criminal sanctions for public performances including streaming: “Public performances would include digital works transmitted to classrooms, including those at a distance and even those of a noncommercial nature.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has indicated he expects the bill to fail, telling The Hill newspaper November 16 that SOPA is “way too extreme [and] infringes on too many areas that our leadership will know is simply too dangerous to do in its current form” and that there are too many “unintended consequences” that can result by using “Google as a piñata.”

On November 17, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted her opposition to the bill. “Need to find a better solution than #SOPA #DontBreakTheInternet,” she wrote, incorporating hashtags that opponents have used to show their disapproval on Twitter.

Groups that have also come out against the measure range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, human rights advocacy organizations, the Brookings Institute, and more than 100 academics and security and free speech experts.

According to Cynthia Wong, director of the Project on Global Internet Freedom at the Center for Democracy and Technology, U.S. lawmakers must now prepare for other governments to pass similar measures restricting online access, whether under the auspices of blocking hate speech or in an effort to censor political dissent. “If many other countries adopt these mechanisms, we risk further Balkanization of the internet, undermining its benefits as a global platform for expression, democratic engagement, and economic development,” Wong blogged at the Index on Censorship November 18. “This result is difficult to square with the U.S.’s stated foreign policy of supporting a single, global network. The U.S. cannot effectively urge other governments to stop blocking internet content that violates local laws when the U.S. is supporting precisely the same mechanisms in service of IP enforcement.”

SOPA already appears to have the European Union uneasy. The European Parliament adopted a resolution November 17 contending that domain-name seizure by the U.S. would endanger “the integrity of the global internet and freedom of communication.” (The topic is likely to come up at the European Union­–U.S. Summit in Washington, D.C., on November 28.)

A similar, though less restrictive, Senate bill (called the PROTECT IP Act) passed the Judiciary Committee in September, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has placed a hold on it. The House opened hearings in late November on its version of the bill, and Smith has said he hopes to move his legislation to markup before the end of the year.