The Impact of Web Legislation

January 01, 2012

After an intense backlash from major Internet companies such as Google and Wikipedia, as well as millions of grassroots supporters, legislators postponed voting on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP (PIPA) Act. However, they have not rejected the bills completely. Website developers and owners should remain wary of legislation like SOPA and PIPA. These bills are overly vague and place an undue burden on domestic Internet-related companies.

SOPA and PIPA, which are heavily promoted by the Motion Picture Association of America, are meant to combat online piracy and copyright infringement from foreign sources. This is an admirable goal. However, the bills attempt to accomplish this by disruptively targeting domestic companies that host and provide access to Internet sites. They would grant copyright holders the ability to seek court orders against websites that “enable” infringement.

Their loose definition of “enable” is where the problem lies. Under SOPA and PIPA, an entire website that contains even one page of infringing material could immediately be banned from the U.S. Search engines would have to remove all links to the site, and Internet service providers would have to block access to the site. Sites could file counter-notices against false accusations, but they would have only five days to do so. This would make large websites which thrive on user-generated content, such as YouTube and Facebook, impossible to operate in the U.S. Smaller Internet companies could be buried under expensive lawsuits. As Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of news aggregate Reddit, said to the Christian Science Monitor, the bills are equivalent to “trying to take action against Ford just because a Mustang was used in a bank robbery.” Of course, it is unlikely that enacting SOPA would lead to an immediate shutdown of all public sharing sites. However, a law which allows for this possibility within its language is unfit to pass.

In the wake of SOPA and PIPA, U.S. Representative Darrell Issa proposed an alternative bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, or OPEN Act. The OPEN act would be enforced by the United States International Trade Commission, rather than the Department of Justice. It allows the ITC to forbid payment processors like Paypal or American Express from issuing payments to foreign websites intended to aid piracy of U.S. intellectual property. Many of SOPA’s most prominent detractors, such as Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter, support OPEN as a reasonable compromise that opposes foreign digital piracy without stifling freedom of speech. Visitors to OPEN’s website can suggest changes in the language of the bill.

The success of such legal online media distribution platforms as iTunes, Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu proves that consumers will gladly pay for digital media. To thrive in the Internet era, media conglomerates ought to adapt their sales model to the Internet, rather than push poorly-considered legislation to control it. Intellectual property must be protected without damaging the open nature of the Internet.