SOPA could harm social media by forcing tech companies to pre-screen and monitor all user comments, pictures and videos. And, both SOPA and PIPA could require all ISPs, social networks, search engines and any other website with a search function to actively police every single link and could shut down a website that linked to any type of pirated content.
Members of the technology community, human rights organizations and venture capitalists, among others, have all raised serious concerns about SOPA and the effects it will have on American consumers and job creators.
Another major problem with SOPA is it creates an unprecedented vigilante clause where a private party, without any involvement by a court, can effectively shut a website down. This is particularly concerning given the news last week that Warner Bros. Entertainment admitted it asked for material to be taken down under claims of copyright infringement that it did not own. Warner Bros. said it didn’t thoroughly check all the files it asked to be removed, resulting in a number of errors. If the Hollywood studios pushing for SOPA can’t accurately apply these standards, how do they expect the ISPs or search engines to?
What’s particularly frustrating is that a market based solution to piracy already exists. The “follow the money approach” would cut off funding for rogue websites specifically engaging in piracy or selling counterfeit goods by a virtual financial blockade. This approach works—Wikileaks recently announced it was shutting down as a direct result of payment processors removing the ability to donate to the site.
SOPA’s author, Texas Representative Lamar Smith, pushed for this Wednesday’s House hearing and wants to vote on the bill before Congress adjourns in December. Fast-tracking this legislation is a bad idea. This is a complicated issue and SOPA is a complicated bill. In fact, it’s 80 pages long and contains a thicket of Internet regulations including 16 new definitions of evolving Internet technologies. The bill even includes a definition for the word “including.” With so much at stake for the technology industry, there needs to be a thoughtful discussion on what approach will best combat online piracy while not hurting innovation and job creation.
There are major questions in this debate that need to be addressed such as what message will this legislation send to countries like China who are already censoring online expression, if the U.S. government starts shutting down websites? What type of impact will SOPA have on the architecture of the Internet if some sites work for some people but not for others? And won’t this increase in regulations make the venture capitalist community, already skittish in this economic environment, even more afraid to invest in start-ups?
Stealing someone else’s property—whether it’s a movie, a song or an idea—is a crime that should be stopped, but SOPA and PIPA are not the solution to the online piracy problem. Instead of heavy-handed legislation that will cripple the one industry that’s creating jobs, Congress must looked to a market-based approach that effectively stops copyright infringement but also allows the Facebooks and Twitters of tomorrow to grow.
Markham Erickson is Executive Director of Net Coalition. He has written extensively on issues related to law and technology.