Having invited only one of six witness voicing opposition to the bill, the House Judiciary Committee avoided digging into the dangerous details of internet censorship during and focused on piracy during its hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). That one witness was Katherine Oyama, the copyright counsel at Google which, to borrow a phrase from Politico, "served as a punching bag" for the pro-SOPA witnesses representing the interests of the entertainment industry as well as committee chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, expressed concern early in the hearing that the panel of witnesses was stacked in favor of Hollywood and lacked representation of internet companies. Like its stalled Senate counterpart PROTECT IP, the House anti-piracy bill would give the government the right to censor certain websites, a drastic move away from the free and open internet. Civil rights advocates and internet experts alike agree that the unintended consequences of the bill could be devastating. Juiced by nearly $200-million in lobbyist funds, the Hollywood crowd did their best to vilify Google and internet companies, invoking the Bush administration in framing SOPA's opponents as criminal sympathizers. "If you're not with us," SOPA's defenders seemed to say, "you're with the pirates."
The tone of the attacks on internet companies, some of the biggest in the country, was nothing less than extreme. Smith growled at Google out of the gates with his opening statement. "One of the companies represented here today has sought to obstruct the Committee’s consideration of bipartisan legislation," Smith said. "Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that Google just settled a federal criminal investigation into the company’s active promotion of rogue websites that pushed illegal prescription and counterfeit drugs on American consumers." The witnesses followed suit. Head of the U.S. Copyright Office Maria Pallante warned the committee that the "U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail" if "Congress does nothing," adding "I don't think that's an overstatement." The other four witnesses represented the Motion Picture Association of America, AFL-CIO, Pfizer and MasterCard — all of whom favor the current version of the bill. Google's Oyama countered these kinds of claims by arguing that SOPA "imposes harsh, arbitrary sanctions without due process" and that punishing companies like Google for the behavior of so-called "rogue" sites made no sense. "We don’t control the World Wide Web," Oyama said.
Following the hearing, the bill's critics weighed in loudly about both the suspicious process of rushing the bill through Congress and the dangers of this specifically problematic version of the law.
An anonymous Verizon executive told The Washington Post about how his company also been excluded from the process:
We have a number of concerns with the bill. And we have been shut out of the process in writing this, even though it is very technical and requires us to use a range of technically difficult things to enforce this legislation.
Nate Anderson at Ars Technica wrote:
This wasn't a hearing designed to elicit complex thoughts about complex issues of free speech, censorship, and online piracy; despite the objections of the ACLU, dozens of foreign civil rights groups, tech giants like Google and eBay, the Consumer Electronics Association, China scholar Rebecca MacKinnon, hundreds of law professors and lawyers, the hearing was designed to shove the legislation forward and to brand companies who object as siding with "the pirates."
How low was the level of debate? The hearing actually descended to statements like "the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks" (courtesy of the AFL-CIO's Paul Almeida).
Ed Black, chairman of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, used some hyperbolic language of his own. He's quoted in Ars Technica saying:
This lack of speaking and listening has been a continued frustration and led to such a flawed bill. I'd liken it to killing mosquitoes with an uzi, but at least the uzi hits its target. This bill will fail to actually stop traffic to infringing sites and will Balkanize Internet traffic, sending the real pirates to foreign DNS servers that can’t easily be monitored.
James Fallows at The Atlantic points to a 2008 feature on the dangers of China's internet censorship and argues:
Every developed society has had to work out the right balance of how far it will go to ensure that inventors and creators will get a reasonable return for their discoveries. If it does too little -- as in modern China, where you can buy a DVD of any movie for $1.50 from a street vendor -- it throttles the growth of creative industries. (China both over-controls political expression and under-controls commercial copying.) If it does too much -- encouraging "patent troll" lawsuits, arresting people for file-sharing music or video streams -- it can throttle growth and creativity in other ways. There is no perfect answer, but this bill would tip the balance way too far in one direction, to defend incumbents in the entertainment industry.
To catch up on the argument against SOPA watch this:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.