Is this ignorance or malice?

It’s called the Stop Online Piracy Act. It’s currently being discussed by the House Judiciary Committee. And a similar measure has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Either the people behind the bill don’t realize the horrible possibilities it would leave open, or they’re doing it on purpose. I’m not sure which possibility is more frightening.

The phrase “a bill that would open up unprecedented tools for online censorship is currently being discussed by a group of middle-aged people who did not grow up with the Internet” has the same chilling effect on me — and most Internet watchers — as the phrase “your child has just been handed to a drunk bear on a tightrope over a pit of molten lava.” Our palms begin to sweat. We start dashing off letters to everyone you can think of.

And we’re right to be terrified.

Generally, the denizens of Silicon Valley fight amongst themselves. Google challenges Facebook. Yahoo snipes at AOL. So when all of them join forces to express their deep, fundamental concern at a proposed measure, you know it’s serious.

SOPA certainly is. It is a bill designed to stop online piracy. It is a way of doing that, in the sense that killing the man in the seat next to you is a way to stop his coughing. The tools this bill would make available to censors are absolutely petrifying. If it passed, a copyright holder could shut off an entire web site by complaining to law enforcement that one of its users infringed on his property. The Guardian notes: “At present, if Facebook, You Tube or other leading websites are found to be holding copyright material without permission, then they are told to take it down. Sopa would make it possible for the US to block the website” (italics mine). Not only that, but search engines could be forced to stop listing blacklisted web sites, and services such as PayPal and credit card companies would be required to cut off their access to cash.

A better name for it might be the Bring Internet Censorship To America Act, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. How about the Force Search Engines To Censor Their Results Act? Or the Shut Down Entire Websites Over Individual Users’ Alleged Copyright Violations Act? Those would all be equally accurate.

I am sympathetic to the desires of content creators to protect what they have wrought. I am one myself. But there are — as Google noted in its testimony to the House Judiciary Committee today — better ways of stopping bad actors and copyright violators than this brutal blunt instrument. Cut off their advertising sources, for instance. Flag individual violators. But this bill goes far beyond that, requiring search engines to remove whole websites from search results, and forcing service providers to cut off access to websites at the drop of a copyright complaint.

This isn't even throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is bludgeoning the baby repeatedly with a sledgehammer and then throwing out the whole bathroom. This is so far beyond what is required that to call it Orwellian would be putting it mildly.

The coverage that presents this as a battle of lightweight digital Davids against massive corporate Goliaths somewhat overstates the case. Arrayed in its favor are a number of heavy hitters, among them the Motion Picture Association of America, Disney, Viacom, and TimeWarner. But the forces against it are formidable as well, if less entrenched. Nearly all of Silicon Valley. Google, Mozilla, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL have joined forces against the bill.

No one disputes that content creators need protection. But so does the Internet, and the individual users whom the bill would leave liable for thousands of dollars in fines for something as minor as singing a copyrighted song on Facebook. “But people will be able to challenge these complaints in court!” Have you looked at the price of litigation lately?

Never has the online generation gap been so potentially lethal. The people deciding the fate of this bill overwhelmingly grew up before the Internet. Sure, some of them tweet now, but that may not be enough for them to take sufficiently seriously what’s at stake.

So little is going right in the economy these days. One of the few exceptions is the web sector, where innovation and entre­pre­neur­ship has borne spectacular fruit.

But more than that, we have spent years delivering powerful, stirring speeches about how free our Internet is and how, unlike other nations that boast elaborate arrays of online censorship, people here can access information freely without the government interposing itself. With this bill, that could change. It is far too blunt an instrument. Even if only used by wise, kind, and temperate individuals, it poses the risk of a serious chilling effect on the kind of collaborative, transformative, creative speech that has made the Internet thrive.

So I hope it’s ignorance. Ignorance can be combated before this bill reaches the floor.

Stop SOPA. There are better ways of doing this.