January 22, 2012

BY MOST measures, the Web site Mega­upload was a 21st-century success story, with 50 million daily visitors and $175 million in profits. According to the Obama administration, it was also an “international organized crime enterprise.”

In an indictment last week, the Justice Department accused the company and several of its principals of conspiracy, racketeering and vast violations of copyright law. The loss to copyright owners of movies, television programs, entertainment software and other content: some $500 million. The government calls this the largest criminal copyright case in the nation’s history.

Megaupload maintained servers in the United States and relied on U.S.-registered domain names, allowing U.S. prosecutors to tap domestic laws to shutter the business. But what if the Web site had been run using only foreign-based servers and foreign-registered domain names? U.S. law enforcers would have had a difficult if not impossible time stopping the alleged wrongdoing.

That reality, of course, is what gave rise to the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and its House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which proposed to give the Justice Department and copyright owners the legal reach and muscle to thwart overseas theft of American intellectual property. SOPA was fatally flawed, with vague provisions that could have made legitimate Web sites vulnerable to sanctions. PIPA was more measured, allowing action against a site only if a federal judge concluded it was “dedicated to” profiting from the unauthorized peddling of others’ work.

Still, Internet giants such as Google railed against the bills, arguing they sanctioned government censorship and threatened the viability and security of the Internet. The protests culminated last week in a remarkable, largely unprecedented protest during which sites such as Wikipedia temporarily went dark. Millions of individuals — many of them armed with distorted descriptions of the bills — phoned, e-mailed and used social networks to demand that they be quashed.

Whether it was democracy in action or spinelessness by cowed lawmakers, the campaign worked. House and Senate leaders said they would pull back the bills for further consideration. While a temporary breather may be helpful, lawmakers should not abandon the quest to curb the multibillion-dollar problem that is overseas online piracy.

Some opponents will fight any regulation of the Internet. This should not be acceptable. A free and viable Internet is essential to nurturing and sustaining the kinds of revolutionary innovations that have touched every aspect of modern life. But freedom and lawlessness are not synonymous. The Constitution does not protect the right to steal, and that is true whether it is in a bricks-and-mortar store or online.