Keeping the Web Safe for Pirates

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Let no one doubt the rabble-rousing power of the Internet.

Incited largely by Google and Wikipedia’s calls to protect “free speech” online, millions of Americans on Wednesday bombarded congressional representatives to voice opposition to the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s PROTECT Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Both bills were destined to be vetoed by President Obama anyway, but the Netizen riot yesterday scared enough elected officials that they probably won’t even get that far, according to The New York Times.

So much for the millions of lobbying greenbacks dropped by the MPAA, RIAA, NBCU, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner Inc. and others. Corporate media interests were shouted down by the Web mob.

“You shut down Congress’s switchboards. You melted their servers. Your voice was loud and strong,” Wikipedia gloated, claiming more than 162 million people saw its blacked-out message.

Note that while Wikipedia and other sites “went dark” for the day in protest, Google didn’t have the guts to actually disable its search engine — which would have really caused a firestorm. Besides losing 24 hours of revenue for Google, such a move would have demolished any defense it has against antitrust accusations.

But what are SOPA and PIPA for? Google and Wikipedia gloss over this.

The legislation is designed to give U.S. copyright owners a way to shut down foreign pirate sites, which aren’t subject to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), by blocking access to their domain names. Period.

Arguing that these laws would result in “censorship” of the Internet is akin to saying shoplifting prohibitions are a restraint of free trade. Or suggesting that criminalizing public sex acts curtails a citizen’s right to free expression (although you can find those who agree with that).

Yes, there are parts of SOPA and PIPA that are troubling. They would allow the U.S. government to demand that even the links to rogue sites be culled from search engines, according to the Electronic Freedom Foundation. The bills also provide leniency for “vigilante” ISPs that shut off access to suspect websites proactively.

And as with any government regulation, there’s the risk of unintended consequences and abuse. Critics intone darkly that a cable TV provider could try to shut down an upstart over-the-top competitor under false pretenses.

But instead of trying to find middle ground, the “information wants to be free” crowd is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So what if a few links to pirate sites are monetized by Google AdWords? That’s the price of freedom, bub.

The Google-backed proposed antipiracy alternative is the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, officially introduced in the House yesterday. This would empower the U.S. International Trade Commission to “investigate” the illegal import of digital goods. Would it do anything to really stop overseas pirates? Don’t bet on it — it would be a toothless bureaucratic dead end for copyright holders.

Look, as a content creator, I freely admit I’m biased. Theft of Multichannel News’s content is a bad thing, since we stand to lose advertising and subscription revenue whenever someone posts our stuff on their own site.

I’m also a big supporter of fair use. In this blog, I am using the image of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from Wikipedia, which includes a detailed rationale for why the image is covered by fair use provisions of copyright laws.

Wikipedia is a great resource. But it is not a business; it’s a volunteer-based not-for-profit organization that gives all of its intellectual capital away for free. The fact that the Wikipedia collective would rather err on the side of an anything-goes Internet shouldn’t trump the rights of digital media producers who do expect to make money.

But the Web masses have spoken. And so, for now, the pirates are still free to sail the Internet without much trouble.

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Follow me on Twitter:@xpangler

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