As the US government’s House Judiciary Committee begins hearings on the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, (SOPA), both supporters and opponents are ramping up their campaigning, with big names getting involved. And so they should. SOPA's stakes are no less than the future of the Internet itself.
The key problem with SOPA is that it seeks to allow any copyright holder to sever any website's relationship with online advertising networks or credit card processing services, simply by pointing the finger. As Ars Technica explains:
Calling its plan a "market-based system to protect US customers and prevent US funding of sites dedicated to theft of US property," the new bill gives broad powers to private actors. Any holder of intellectual property rights could simply send a letter to ad network operators like Google and to payment processors like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, demanding these companies cut off access to any site the IP holder names as an infringer.
[…] So long as the intellectual property holders include some "specific facts" supporting their infringement claim, ad networks and payment processors will have five days to cut off contact with the website in question.
The bill also gives the government the power to get an injunction against foreign sites which would force ISPs to, within five days, "prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site." Essentially, it obliges ISPs to break their own DNS servers by filtering or redirecting users who try to access an accused site. It would also ban any tools which allow circumvention of such blocks.
It doesn't take a genius to see how this could be abused: An aggrieved party accuses a site of infringement, with or without reliable evidence, and suddenly that site can no longer accept credit cards or PayPal payments and its advertising revenue dries up completely. And we know that the IP industry isn't above false accusations of copyright infringement. It's not just business websites that could be affected, but open source projects too.
Opponents currently include businesses such as Google, Facebook, Zynga, eBay, Twitter, Yahoo!, AOL, and LinkedIn who, together, sent a letter; advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch; as well as eleven members of the House of Representatives who have also written a letter to the House Judiciary Committee. Another letter from human rights groups includes India's Centre for Internet and Society as well as the Church of Sweden.
There are also complaints that the House Judiciary Committee is trying to push the legislation through with undue haste. Says PCWorld:
Critics of the legislation also complained that the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee appears to be fast-tracking the bill before opposition can build. At a 10 am hearing Wednesday, five of six witnesses are likely to speak in favor of SOPA, with only Google opposed. Witnesses the Motion Picture Association of America, trade union the AFL-CIO and pharmaceutical company Pfizer have all voiced support for the bill.
No public interest groups, Internet engineers or human rights groups have been invited to the hearing, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. "This is really being railroaded, without a full public debate," she said.
Indeed, the tone of the Committee's so-called fact sheet, which lays out a series of 'myths' and 'facts', gives cause for concern, implying as it does that they have already decided which side of the fence they will land on. What is also disturbing is that the US Copyright Office — which as a part of the Library of Congress, one would expect to be impartial and evidence-led — will be offering an "unqualified endorsement":
"It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the US copyright system will ultimately fail," [Copyright Office director Maria] Pallante’s testimony says.
Pallante and representatives from Pfizer, the Motion Picture Association of America, the AFL-CIO, and Mastercard, all of whom support the bill, will be testifying tomorrow before the House Judiciary committee.
For Americans who are unimpressed by this latest move from the content industries to control the Internet, there is a letter writing campaign encouraging people to contact their congressperson. For non-Americans, Avaaz has set up a Save the Internet petition which currently has 70,000 signatures and is racking up hundreds of new signatures every minute.
There's no doubt that tech journalists, free software advocates and digital rights campaigners and internet businesses worldwide will be glued to coverage of today's Judiciary hearing. But, given the power of the copyright industry's lobbying arms, it is hard to expect discussions to conclude satisfactorily. It may just be that the entire Internet will have to rely on the strength of the US Constitution, which SOPA may contravene, to save it.