The Internet blackout Wednesday by Wikipedia in English and other popular online destinations had much of the effect the sites had hoped. It brought attention to and diluted support for two bills whose intent was to stop or at least slow Internet piracy and copyright theft but that would have, among other things, punished online sites for offenses by others over which they have little control.
Whether passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would have been the death knell for creative expression and free speech on the Internet is a fair question, but certainly in its present form it would have overly limited it. Yet if SOPA and a similar Senate bill go too far, maintaining the status quo is not an adequate alternative. The status quo amounts to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a 1998 law that allows U.S. prosecutors and copyright-holders to obtain warrants to stop abuses, including shutting down websites.
It has been helpful, but hasn’t kept pace with changes in technology or communication. Moreover, that law doesn’t police international online pirates, whose willingness to steal intellectual property and profit from it takes a considerable financial toll on Hollywood, the music industry and other creators of intellectual property. One industry-funded study puts the loss to U.S. businesses at $130 billion a year.
Internet advocates that expect unlimited access at no cost should seek common ground with industries and organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that are committed to protecting intellectual property. If they try, they just might find a compromise that both provides access to information and protects innovation and creativity.
President Barack Obama, whose administration was quick Wednesday to say it would “not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet, ought to say a few words about what he would support. Unless those who generate ideas, write music and books and movie scripts and make their living doing so are not ensured some level of protection on the “dynamic, innovative, global Internet,” it will become less dynamic and innovative.
Perhaps Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is on to something when he suggests giving the International Trade Commission the authority to enforce copyright laws and to protect intellectual property much as it protects against improper trade in more tangible goods. It’s not an ideal alternative; nor would it stop piracy within the United States. Yet it could be successful against some of the worst overseas offenders and do so without blocking the flow of legitimate information that has made the Internet such a valuable and universal entity.
SOPA as written now might not be the solution. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.