Wednesday, November 16, 2011

American Censorship Day

Today, the House of Representatives is debating HR 3261, Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA. This debate is attended by representatives of the content and entertainment lobbies. There are no representatives from technology companies in attendance. This is a concern because SOPA is a bill to add third-party liability on internet services like payment processors and DNS providers for content online as if they were hosting it themselves. It also directly eliminates the safe-harbors provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which would otherwise force the content industry to apply liability for infringement to the actual infringer.
The first part of this bill tasks the Attorney General with the requirement to censor foreign websites on the accusations of the content industry. The procedures that the Attorney General would be required to initiate do not involve contacted the accused infringer directly. Instead, the payment processors, search engines, ad networks, and domain name service providers across the internet with knowledge of or business relationships with the accused foreign website will be forced to cease operations with the accused. Search engines will have to remove the accused from their results, ad networks will not be allowed to disburse revenue to sites accused of infringing, and DNS providers will be prohibited from resolving domain names to IP addresses for accused sites. The second title of HR 3261 increases penalties for web site operators accused of copyright infringement.
Now that we've outlined what this bill is supposed to do, let's discuss why it won't do any of that and why it is a horrid piece of legislation.
First off, this bill is clearly just fellating the entertainment industry as a reward for their failure to adapt to changing market conditions. Copyright infringement is a result of a poorly implemented business model which does not monetize the audience to the level of the copyright holder's expectations. SOPA has no provision for removing infringing content. It only adds liability, and thus expense, to third-party service providers. These costs will be passed along to customers or used to raise the barriers to entry for innovative new companies entering the market. Nor are there penalties for false accusations or claims against non-infringing content.
Also, foreign governments will find themselves pressured to "meet their international obligations" in expanding protectionist copyright policies. And, as this bill is written to target foreign websites, so will it be used as the basis for laws used against American business interests.
Third, whenever the ability to censor is available there is always a desire to expand this ability and this bill will not stay in scope. SOPA has already been used to legitimize censorship by foreign regimes and the bill hasn't even passed yet.
If you believe your elected Congressperson still represents you, call them and ask them to oppose HR 3261.