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Posted at 03:28 PM ET, 12/15/2011

The nightmarish SOPA hearings

Last night I had a horrifying dream that a group of well-intentioned middle-aged people who could not distinguish between a domain name and an IP address were trying to regulate the Internet. Then I woke up and the Judiciary Committee’s SOPA hearings markup was on.

It’s exactly as we feared. For every person who appears to have some grip on the issue, there were three or four yelling at him.

“I’m not a nerd,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D- Calif.). “I aspire to be a nerd.”

“I’m a nerd,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing markup used the phrase “I’m not a nerd” or “I’m no tech expert, but they tell me . . .,” I’d have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet. If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. “We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what’s required,” they say cheerily. “We’re not going to cut the good valves, just the bad — neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies.”

This is terrifying to watch. It would be amusing — there’s nothing like people who did not grow up with the Internet attempting to ask questions about technology very slowly and stumbling over words like “server” and “service” when you want an easy laugh. Except that this time, the joke’s on us.

It’s been a truism for some time that you can tell innovation in an industry has ceased when the industry starts to develop a robust lobbying and litigating presence instead.

As long as there have been new technologies, the entertainment industry has been trying to get them shut down as filthy, thieving pirates. Video cassettes? Will anyone tune into TV again? MP3 players? Why even bother making a record? Digital video recorder that lets you skip ads? That’s a form of theft!

But SOPA is threatening to touch something far more precious than that — the glorious sprawl of the Internet.

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a bill that, in the name of preventing online piracy of copyrighted work, creates a horrifyingly large censorship authority for the Internet. Among other things, it requiresservice providers (which have come out opposing the bill) to block access to entire sites if a user on the site is accused of copyright infringement.

There are dozens of reasons this is wrong. The biggest and most pressing is that not only does the bill not do what it sets out to do, it also creates a horrifyingly blunt instrument to censor the Internet.

One of the underlying assumptions of our system of government has always been that even though people mean well now, that doesn’t mean you give them the authority to do terrible things later. The attorney general now may use SOPA in only the most narrowly tailored of cases. But as the Founders knew, it is unwise to give people more powers than you would like them to use.

There ought to be a law, I think, that in order to regulate something you have to have some understanding of it. And when people are saying things like, “This is just the rogue foreign Web sites” and “This only targets the bad actors” and “So you want universities to host illegal pirated versions of copyrighted content?,” it’s enough to make you claw out large fistfuls of your hair. No! No! Nobody is hosting anything. This bill would require service providers to cut off access to entire Web sites where users are deemed to be engaging in copyright infringement, not take down stolen content they posted themselves. That’s already against the law. But no one seemed to be able to express this.

When you have a signed letter from the engineers responsible for creating the Internet pointing out that this bill would jeopardize our cybersecurity, balkanize the Internet and create a climate of uncertainty that would stifle innovation, it seems odd to ignore it. As a general rule, when the people saying that this will have a horrible, chilling impact on something are the ones who created that thing in the first place, and the people who are saying, “Oh, no, it’ll be fine, it only targets the bad actors” are members of the Motion Picture Association of America, it seems obvious whose opinion you should heed.

And the rush to legislate struck many of the committee members as odd. “Haste makes waste,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) noted. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) asked, “Why is there this rush to judgment?,” noting, “I have rarely been part of a committee operation where we have not had . . . technical experts to deal with major concerns that have arisen.”

This is enough to paralyze a person with dread.

When Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) proposed an amendment to exempt colleges and not-for-profit institutions from the unfunded mandate of having to shut off access to certain sites — like freedom, Internet censorship isn’t free — it was shot down 23 to 9. When he proposed another amendment to target the restrictions not at IP addresses (which, as he noted, can be dynamic and assigned to toasters) but at domain names, it fell just as easily.

This afternoon, the hearings markups continue, with even more amendments. But at the rate it’s going, it looks likely that SOPA will make it to the floor.

I just want the nightmare to be over.

By  |  03:28 PM ET, 12/15/2011

Tags:  SOPA

 
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