Two IP protection bills stir controversy, inspire “blackout”
|Google blacked out its home page logo today, Jan. 18, to draw attention to its opposition to the pending SOPA legislation.|
Yesterday afternoon, American Business Media hosted a call with members of its Information Policy Committee, Digital Media Council, Business Information Council and Editorial Committee to discuss the SOPA and PIPA bills, invite member input and explore potential ABM advocacy. At this point, the trade association is working to formalize a position.
According to proponents, SOPA wants to fight foreign sites that let users download pirated content. But no one in America can touch the foreign sites. So instead the proposed legislation targets companies and sites that could help you get to pirate sites.
For example, say a pirate game site in Libya has the URL “freegamedownloads.ly.” SOPA would require Internet service providers to block that URL from working. That makes ISPs into censors, so that users who type “freegamedownloads.ly” would not get to the site they desire. Now, every single Web site actually has two addresses: the URL (or domain name), like “google.com” or “freegamedownloads.ly,” and the IP address, which consists of four numbers separated by three periods, say “126.96.36.199.” Any user can bypass a URL block by typing the IP address into their Web browser. Users who want to download pirated content can share the IP address. So the proposed legislation also would make it illegal to type those numbers on the Internet anywhere. If a user types an infringing IP address into a comment box on a blog on a news site, then someone in authority could tell the news site’s ISP to shut down the whole site, and it could. Opponents of the legislation say that censored sites would have no recourse, no appeal, and no mechanism for coming back online when the offending content is removed.
The PROTECT IP Act was introduced in May 2011 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). On Oct. 26, 2011, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bills do have different provisions and SOPA is considered to be broader than the PROTECT IP Act, but the general legislative concept for both bills was embodied in prior legislation introduced by Senator Leahy in 2010, the Combatting Online Infringements and Counterfeiting Act (COICA). That legislation was blocked by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the last Congress. The bills are being considered in Congress and are the subject of much media attention currently. President Obama has threatened to veto them in their current forms.
As of late Wednesday, the controversy has inspired several influential members of Congress to reconsider their prior support of these IP bills. It now seems likely that if these bills advance at all, it will be on a slower timetable, and in greatly revised forms.
Pros and Cons
The legislation is designed to address peer-to-peer (P2P) copying and distribution of US works, especially movies and sound recordings, but since most of the sites are foreign based, the legislation targets US facilitators and could impact the Internet infrastructure as it currently exists.
Piracy sites cause many jobs and millions of dollars to be lost annually, expose consumers to fraud and identity theft and profoundly hurt the American entertainment industry. However, some argue that laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are already in place and sufficient to protect IP holders.
Broad and preemptive powers like those found in SOPA and PROTECT IP are necessary to combat the significant threat of foreign-based infringement to US companies’ IP. However, by vastly increasing the risks associated with hosting user-generated content, both bills could make it far more difficult to start new Internet companies like Facebook or YouTube.
The legislation is robust, requiring: ISPs to prevent access by US users to the target site; search engines to prevent the target site from being served; payment providers to prevent its service from completing payment transactions with the target site; and advertisers are prevented from providing ads to or relating to the target site. Yet, depending on the scope of the law, such requirements on all sectors could negatively impact the Internet infrastructure.
Because the bills deal only with foreign sites, US sites devoted to journalism would not be significantly affected, unless they assisted foreign infringing sites. However, if user-generated content that include links or references to foreign infringing material is included on a journalistic Web site, that Web site could be subject to the SOPA remedies. This could affect sites that depend on user-generated content.
ABM’s lobbyist, Tom Carpenter of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, provided invaluable background information for this article.