Congress Weighs Taking the War-on-Drugs Approach to Fighting Internet Piracy

Protecting intellectual property is important, but the Stop Online Piracy Act would harm innocents and undermine due process

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Congress is weighing a bill that would fundamentally change how the Internet works. It would affect even the most casual web user, who does no more than browse Facebook or watch YouTube videos or store photos on Flickr. Despite its importance, few people understand the legislation: It sounds complicated to outsiders.

But don't tune out!

A quick primer is enough to grasp the high stakes, and there are two huge payoffs: 1) You can help save the Internet. 2) You can see beyond this specific bill's flaws to the general error in thinking its supporters embrace. That's important, for the same error is behind many of the most destructive laws in the United States.

Once you recognize it, you'll see it everywhere.

Who supports the Stop Online Piracy Act?

Mostly copyright holders and their associations. Viacom. Time Warner. Disney. The Recording Industry Association of America. The Motion Picture Association of America. The Internet makes it easier to consume intellectual property bankrolled by these entities without paying for it. Perhaps you've illegally downloaded a song, or posted a TV show to YouTube, or downloaded a whole pirated movie from a foreign website. Having invested in producing lots of albums and feature-length films, it's easy to understand why a Fox or Universal or BMI would want to prevent people from consuming them without paying. They argue doing so is every bit as legitimate as a department store working to prevent shoplifting or a neighborhood bank guarding the cash in its drawers.

There's a heated debate about whether illegally copying an .mp3 file is equivalent to stealing a CD from a record-store shelf. For the purposes of this piece, let's assume that the industry lobbies are correct -- that stealing intellectual property is equivalent to shoplifting from a retailer.

The Stop Online Piracy Act is meant to help stop that kind of stealing and other problems besides. "Whether we're talking about copyright or trademark, software or American-made apparel, U.S. businesses are getting robbed and U.S. consumers are getting duped," one proponent told Congress. "You can still search for 'drugs without a prescription' and yield natural search results for scores of illegal on-line pharmacies. We still see legitimate ads being placed on illegal sites dedicated to offering infringing movies or music. And thousands of sites still offer counterfeit products, many of which affect the health and safety of consumers. These sites are easy to locate, and you can still use your credit card to obtain these products. This problem is not going to just go away on its own."

Thus the remedies proposed in the law.

Fight for the Future, a group opposing the legislation, does a good job laying out the particulars and articulating specific objections in this short video:

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

To sum up, the Stop Online Piracy Act goes after piracy by targeting not just copyright violators, but entities on the Internet with which they might interact. And the way the law is written, these other entities will be effectively forced to censor content not after piracy has been proven, but when it is merely alleged. "One infringing file or 'portion' (e.g. a forum thread) could be used as the basis to take down an entire website," Devin Coldewey writes at the blog TechCrunch. "That's a hell of a lever to have at your disposal, and the process for review is slow enough that it could easily be used as a perfectly legal kill switch for any site on the internet."


After reading the bill, I thought about a story I reported on several years ago. It isn't a perfect analogy, but it is worth pondering. When the 210 Freeway opened, it was good for residents of Alta Loma, Calif., who could get to and from Los Angeles more quickly. But nearby bank branches had a problem. Suddenly it was easier to rob them and escape. A masked man could snatch a few thousand dollars, hop in his car, and be speeding away at 70 MPH in under a minute. It had taken half-an-hour to reach a freeway. The new infrastructure made it significantly easier to get away with stealing from the local banking industry! Yet no one thought that California's Department of Transportation was obligated to help catch the thieves using its network of high-speed roads.

Here's an even shorter story.

Copy machines were a boon to business when they became widespread. Goodbye carbon paper, hello inappropriate office humor. Fax machines were an excellent invention too. A document could be sent across the country without having to transport it. These inventions made it much easier to reproduce and send copyrighted material. Doing so was illegal. But we didn't respond by holding office hardware or telephone companies responsible for any user who broke the law.

Just one more.

Phone books list all sorts of businesses, a small percentage of which engage in illegal activity. Yet I could never call Pac Bell and demand, "Hey, my house got robbed a few weeks back, and when I went into this pawn shop, they had my television set. Remove them or you're liable!"

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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