Blog of Rights

Good Idea, Poor Follow-Through: Congress' Mistakes with SOPA

By Rachel Marshall, Washington Legislative Office at 9:50am

“The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century-the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub,” proclaimed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year. Yet as the Obama administration continues to tout an open Internet, the House will be holding a hearing on November 16on a bill that could have a great impact on our free speech and put a damper on a thriving marketplace for ideas.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), while a well-intentioned effort to reduce online copyright infringement, is severely flawed and has much broader implications than its Senate predecessor, PROTECT IP. Copyright protection is absolutely vital to free speech in that it encourages innovations and assures creators that their work will be protected; however, it is extremely important that such protection remains consistent with constitutional principles and only impacts those who illegally use protected content. SOPA’s vague definitions could lead to the restriction of completely lawful non-infringing content.

The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the bill today.

Under SOPA, the attorney general would be able to identify an Internet site that is ‘committing or facilitating the commission’ of online copyright infringement and then serve a court order which would force Internet service providers (ISPs)to block access to the accused site. The court order would also compel payment network providers, Internet advertising services and search engines to sever ties with the website.SOPA also allows victims of copyright infringement to take action independent of the courts by directly sending notices of infringing content to Internet advertisers and payment processors. The advertisers and payment processors must then follow the same steps to sever their connections with the infringer as they would if the notice came from the attorney general.

While this all sounds productive and effective in theory, the lack of narrowly tailored language could essentially lead to the shutdown of sites that contain very little infringing material. SOPA also fails to assure that those whose material will be blocked, whether infringing or non-infringing material, receive adequate notice before the content is blocked. We agree that online infringement is a continuing problem, but we do not believe that it is acceptable to sidestep procedural protections, especially in cases that may involve non-infringing First Amendment protected material.

So what does all this mean to the average Internet user? Many opponents fear that the sites that would suffer most under SOPA are those with primarily user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For example, Katy Perry could decide that the awesome video you just posted on YouTube rocking out and lip-synching to her latest hit was, in fact, copyright infringement. All Ms. Perry would have to do is notify YouTube’s ISP of the supposed copyright infringement, and YouTube’s entire site could effectively disappear from the Web, perhaps even before YouTube was notified and despite the fact all other content on the site was non-infringing. Fear of an entire website being taken down for such a small piece of content could lead such user-generated websites to police their users’ content, thus impeding free speech.

As a country that prides itself on protecting free speech, it is important that we set an example to other countries across the world with fewer free speech protections. If we adopt an overly broad online infringement takedown scheme, what will that say to the nations that frequently remove content they find objectionable, like China? As Secretary of State Clinton noted, it is absolutely possible to preserve our free speech principles while maintaining strong online copyright protections. Unfortunately, SOPA provides that protection at the expense of threatening non-infringing content. Contact Congress now and tell them tooppose SOPA in order to set an example for the rest of the world.

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