The discussion over online piracy and the evils of SOPA and PIPA has gotten absurd.
To hear some critics tell it, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and its non-identical – and in my opinion, far better – Senate twin PIPA (Protect IP Act) would “break” the Internet, turn Google and its cohorts into full-time Internet cops, and would end the freedom of speech as we know it.
Not only is this hyperbolic, it’s based on what I’ll charitably call misinformation.
For instance, some critics howl that legitimate enterprises such as Google could face ruin if they fail to spot and then bring down rogue sites that peddle counterfeit goods.
Not true. PIPA, for example, specifically shields such companies from liability. It does not require Google or Yahoo! or any other legitimate Internet entity to scour the universe for infringing actors. The Justice Department – and probably more often than not – the rightful copyright holders will do that. Keep in mind, that the legislation targets foreign websites that would otherwise be out of reach of U.S. law enforcement. Once an alleged scofflaw is spotted the government or the copyright holder must present evidence and convince a federal judge that the site isn’t merely flirting with illegality but is “dedicated to” copyright infringement (i.e., illegally profiting from someone else’s rightful property.) Only then may a judge order PayPal or another online payment service to stop money transfers from U.S. customers to the offending site. And in what is likely to be a less common course of action, only the Justice Department can seek a court order to have the foreign site blocked for U.S. viewers.
Is there a First Amendment right to view or even shop a website whose only reason for being is to steal from innovators and to rip off customers? I don’t think so. If counterfeit videos or music CDs or fake designer handbags were being sold on the sidewalks of U.S. cities there is no question that law enforcement officials or the lawful producers would have the right to take action to stop these thieves. (Let’s not forget that consumers – not just companies and copyright holders – are also hurt when they are sold fake and shoddy products.) The calculus should not change simply because the thieves are hawking their goods online.
It’s okay to criticize or even dislike these pieces of legislation. It’s okay to worry about their reach, to debate their wisdom, to query whether there are not more effective and safer ways to achieve the same goals. But it’s not okay to base those arguments on invented facts or what some of us might call lies.