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January 17, 2012

Resistance To Anti-Piracy Bill SOPA Keeps Growing

Jedidiah Becker for

When the U.S. Congress returns from recess on January 24, both houses are expected to begin rolling up their sleeves to hammer out a final version of two of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent memory: the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA for short) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Yet as the date draws closer, a growing panoply of concerns and protests over the content of the bills has continued to plague its bipartisan Congressional supporters – concerns that touch on issues as diverse as free speech, the economics of technological development, and the future of the internet.

The stated intent of the legislation – the brainchild of Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Senate Democratic Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy – is to protect intellectual property and curb the rampant digital piracy for which the Internet has become the principle medium.  Yet for an increasingly large segment of civil society, they have come to appear as something of a devil´s pact between D.C. politicians and the foundering traditional entertainment industry.

As the Internet and media revolutions have continued to push forward, making and breaking great fortunes along the way, various branches of the traditional entertainment industry have struggled unsuccessfully to maintain control over the distribution of entertainment media.  For staunch advocates of web liberty (this author included), SOPA and PIPA (and the slew of similar legislative efforts that have appeared in the last decade) represent the last gasps of an industry that has grown increasingly obsolete and moribund. Having stubbornly refused to adapt to the realities of an evolving market, these bills are little more than an attempt to cartelize digital entertainment by imposing archaic rules on an inherently dynamic and decentralized medium.

As opponents of the legislation have been quick to point out, both bills are almost exclusively supported by traditional media companies like Viacom and members of Recording Industry Association of America, not to mention a handful of firms like Nike, NBA and Pfizer that depend heavily on advertising their brand names on these traditional platforms.

Yet while past efforts to impose rigid rules on the Internet have mostly only drawn the ire of computer geeks, this current legislation has increasingly become an issue of intense concern for academics, legal experts, Silicon Valley magnates and independent internet activists of all colors. And in the course of the last few months, this motley mélange of concerned citizens has increasingly been giving voice to their dissent in a variety of forms.

Consumers Unite!

A host of decentralized digital grassroots campaigns with thousands of supporters have sprung up in recent months, harnessing their collective powers as consumers and service providers in an effort to oppose the intrusive legislation.

For several months a diverse variety of online groups and internet activists have been assembling and publishing lists of big-name companies who have voiced support for SOPA. They´re calling on consumers to boycott their goods and services, a strategy that has found increasing resonance as the bill approaches a vote and the negative press surrounding it waxes to a fever-pitch.

Initially a vocal advocate of SOPA, the popular domain registrar GoDaddy bowed to intense pressure in late December after a rigorous boycott led to a significant loss of customers and plummeting revenue for the company.

The successful boycott of GoDaddy´s first crystallized in a comment thread on the social news site Reddit, in which a single reader stated that he had transferred his domain names to another provider on account of the company´s support of SOPA and suggested that others do the same. From there, criticism of GoDaddy quickly mushroomed, and within a week, internet figures as prominent as Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales were threatening to move their domain names or had already done so.

On December 29, the company issued a contrite statement in which it candidly acknowledged that it was losing business due to its support of SOPA and announced that it would be reversing its position in an attempt to ℠repair relationships´ with its customers.

The statement also attempted to further explain its change of heart by adding that SOPA “has not fulfilled its basic requirements to build a consensus among stake-holders in the technology and Internet communities.”

Yet many of GoDaddy´s soured customers seem to think that the company´s about-face was simply too little too late.  With thousands of sites reluctant to flock back to the prodigal domain provider, a number the company´s competitors have taken advantage of the seething anti-SOPA mood to pick up new clientele. One such competitor offered new customers below-cost domain name transfers with a coupon called “SOPASUCKS.”

A handful of the blacklisted companies have accused these groups of being overly zealous, noting that several firms have been falsely accused of supporting legislation.

However, an examination of the companies insisting that they´ve been falsely associated with the bills reveals the likely source of the discrepancy: Though not necessarily directly related to the SOPA bill, a number of the suspect firms had in fact attached their names to letters to Congress which voiced general support for online piracy legislation.

One such company, Electronic Arts (EA), has experienced such a backlash from the boycotts that it´s been forced to go public in an attempt to ameliorate its piqued customers.

Jeff Brown, senior VP of communications and public affairs at EA, commented recently that despite his company´s appearance on several of these boycott lists, it has not yet staked out a definitive position on either SOPA or the similarly controversial PIPA.

“Going forward, we'll evaluate the issue with an effort to balance developers´ rights with the needs of gamers,” Brown, indicating that EA was still deliberating its position on the bill, said in an email to Hayley Tsukayama of Washington Post.

Taylor Guitars, another of the defamed companies, recently stated that false information was being circulated regarding its position on SOPA.

After receiving a number of calls and e-mails from customers critical of the legislation, Taylor spokeswoman Chalize Zolezzi said that the company decided to unambiguously set the record straight after it discovered that its name appeared on one the numerous lists of SOPA advocates.

“Clearly stated, we do not support SOPA and its intent to restrict the Internet,” stated a representative for the California-based guitar makers to Tsukayama.

“The values of freedom, creativity and innovation are at the core of our business, and SOPA is not in accordance with those values.”

But perhaps the most aggressive form of protest to date came from the online activist group known as Anonymous, which gained notoriety last year for exacting retribution on credit card companies after they attempted to financially choke-out Wikileaks in the wake of the Bradley Manning scandal. This week, the gang of digital gangsters turned their guns on several media executives who have been closely involved in drafting and supporting the legislation.

Executives from Time Warner, Viacom´s, NBC Universal, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Walt Disney Company – all of which have adamantly supported SOPA – awoke last week to find that their personal contact information had been hacked and leaked online to thousands of angry online protesters.

Under the code name “Operation Hiroshima,” troves of information was dispersed to several anonymous online publishing sites, which encouraged readers to bombard the unsuspecting CEOs with e-mails and phone calls.

In video posted by Anonymous on YouTube just before the information bomb was dropped, a monotone voice said: “You take our speech, you take our Internet, you take our Bill of Rights, you take our Constitution: We fight back.”

The Business World Steps Up

While SOPA – and to a lesser degree PIPA – has been rightly characterized as a sort of cynical collusion between D.C. politicians and bigwig entertainment moguls, the rest of the business world has by no means fallen in line behind the legislation. And as the chorus of protest from private citizens and groups has risen to a fever-pitch in recent weeks, a growing number of industry leaders and media outlets have grown plucky in their opposition as well.

In a scathing piece published Wednesday in Forbes and written by E.D. Kain, the respected financial magazine called SOPA and PIPA “the greatest threat to a free internet we´ve seen from the US government yet,” adding that the legislation represented a blatant attack on “the last unregulated bastion of free commerce in the world.”

And New York Times columnist David Carr – though himself something of an anti-piracy alarmist – recently wrote that the current pair of bills would have little impact in curbing the activities of “rogue” websites but would have significant “collateral damage” in terms of ham-stringing creativity and, ultimately, technological progress.

Perhaps most significantly, a group of leading internet giants including Facebook, Google, Mozilla, Yahoo!, Twitter, eBay, and AOL joined together early on to voice their opposition to the legislation in a join letter to the House of Representatives´ Committee on the Judiciary.

While stating that they agreed with the intended goal of the legislation – namely, to prosecute those “rogue” websites guilty of serial copyright infringement – they went on to criticize the over-reaching powers that the bill would grant regulators and their potential for stifling creativity.

“We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry´s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation´s cybersecurity,” the letter stated.

“We cannot support these bills as written and ask that you consider more targeted ways to combat foreign ℠rogue´ websites dedicated to copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting, while preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the Internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation.”

The letter – which also appeared as a paid advertisement in a number of national newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post – also prophesied that SOPA and PIPA would have a “chilling effect on innovation,” ultimately altering “the very basic structure of the Internet.”

In a separate statement, Mozilla went a step further, comparing the proposed legislation to the censorship methods used by notoriously rights-abusing authoritarian regimes in China, Syria and Iran.

“The fact is that this legislation as written won´t stop piracy. But it would pose a serious threat to social media and user generated content sites (like YouTube) across the internet. It could also undermine some of the core technical systems underlying the internet, creating new cybersecurity risks,” read an official statement.

“As a non-profit committed to keeping the web open and accessible to all, Mozilla wants to ensure that this legislation does not jeopardize the foundational structure of the Internet.”

Scholars Join the Protest

Perhaps most surprisingly, even segments of the notoriously navel-gazing world of academia are up in arms over the potentially harmful effects of the legislation.

California´s prestigious Stanford University recently hosted a public event unambiguously titled “What´s wrong with SOPA?” for which it assembled a panel of experts to publically discuss just that question.

“The answer is to innovate, not to pass stupid laws that are going to screw up the Internet,” said a very candid Anthony Falzone, the executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford´s Center for Internet and Society (SCIS) which hosted the event last month.

The scholars chosen to participate in the panel – which boasted critical expertise in areas like internet infrastructure, security, digital intellectual property and the economics of Silicon Valley business – were not selected in for impartiality, said Falzon. He conceded that the event did not intend to give an equal voice to both sides of the debate.

While the audience included representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America and other SOPA-PIPA supporters and did allow them to speak, the main goal was to call attention to certain aspects of the bill and their ramifications which scholars believe that lawyers, entrepreneurs and technology people “need to know.”

“Our goal was to put together an array of people who could speak to each one of those sets of considerations,” he added.

Professor Mark Lemley, director of Stanford´s Program in Law, Science and Technology, also participated in the event. Speaking to journalists about the legislation, he cut to the heart of the problem with overly intrusive anti-piracy legislation:  "Because of the very nature of how the Internet functions, you simply can´t have your cake and eat it too."

“If we just shut down the Internet there would be a lot less piracy, right? [“¦] But, there is a lot of socially valuable material that we get only because of the Internet.”

Lemley warned that if SOPA advocates get the version of the bill they want passed, the Attorney General will be granted authority to prosecute websites accused of “facilitating” online piracy–a flexible word which, in the hands of politicians, could lend itself to any number of interpretations.

As Lemley pointed out, the bill would also erect a notifications system whereby copyright holders (like major film companies and music labels) could directly report purported infringements to Internet service providers and search engines, who could then suspend or block access to specific sites without due process. Moreover, both the copyright holders and service providers would be immune from prosecution which, in a worst-case scenario, would allow them to harass innocent websites with impunity.

With this extrajudicial setup, said Lemley, “you wouldn´t necessarily even bring anybody into court. So each individual ISP who gets this notice has now got to keep a separate black list.”

Commenting on the same aspect of the legislation, Falzone said he worries that we might end up in a world where websites could be stealthily made disappear because of financial or political interests rather than illegal activity.

“You would have people doing these deals in the proverbial smoky backroom [“¦] picking up the phone and saying, ℠Wouldn´t it be so unpleasant if we had to go through an elaborate process and spend money on lawyers?´” he added.

According to Lemley, yet another unfortunate sequela of this legislation would be that the United States would forfeit the proverbial moral high ground in its efforts to pressure repressive regimes around the world to respect civil rights and loosen their controls over channels of social information.

“It´s awfully hard to persuade the Chinas and Irans of the world that they should open their society and Internet to things they object to when we won´t open our society to things we object to.”

If you´d like to get learn more or get involved in defeating SOPA, explore some of the following websites: