SOPA & PIPA Legislation
File sharing involving copyright infringement began as peer-to-peer operations, sometimes with the involvement of a central server that acts as a search engine. Recently there has been a rise in file sharing where the infringing content is actually stored on the central server, such as the now-defunct megaupload.com. Consequently, there is a conflict between the rights of content owners and the rights of ordinary users of the internet. The conflict here is that efforts to eliminate sites that enable online infringing may also eliminate legitimate internet activity. In the fall of 2011 the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) proposals were introduced into the U.S. Congress. Almost certainly, the SOPA and PIPA proposals to go after file sharers go too far in the other direction in violating the free speech rights of individual users and handing the web even more over to corporate control than it is already. Although only limited protections exist for privacy and confidential information on the Internet, this legislation is flawed, probably unconstitutional, and should not be passed.
In general, Hollywood, the music industry, the broadcast and cable TV industry, publishers, writers and artists all support stricter laws against online piracy and theft, while Google, Wikipedia and millions of Internet users have led a grassroots campaign that stalled the new legislation in the Senate. It is unlikely that it will be taken up again until after the 2012 elections. Present copyright laws already in force have resulted in taking down many websites and YouTube videos that do not pay royalties to the owners of copyrights — almost always large corporations. They can also remove DNS servers and block access to their IP addresses, which happens all the time, even without SOPA/PIPA. This new legislation goes further in banning advertisers and payment processors, allowing the courts to ban Google from listing websites, and banning any attempt to conceal user IP addresses.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) opposed the Senate decision to postpone consideration of SOPA/PIPA, which because of public opposition will probably not be considered at all until after the 2012 elections. Smith’s staff drafted SOFA, and it was supported the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), organized labor and bipartisan factions on both the House and Senate (Howard 2011). Smith clearly spoke on behalf of Hollywood, the music industry and other corporations concerned with copyright violations and theft of intellectual property. He argued that the problem of piracy was out of control and that “American intellectual property industries provide 19 million high-paying jobs and account for more than 60% of U.S. exports. The theft of America’s intellectual property costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs” (Smith 2011). Smith insisted that it had to be enforced both in stores and online, although the Judiciary Committee was open to suggestions from consumers and public interest groups, but in general regarded SOPA is vital to protect U.S. innovation and technological supremacy.
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Smith responded to criticism by David Carr by denying that it would ever be applied to domestic blogs or websites but only those in foreign countries. Not only Hollywood and the Silicon Valley were demanding this protection against foreign piracy, but over 120 trade associations and industries as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Google and other Internet companies were opposed to it because they “made huge profits by directing consumers to illegal foreign Web sites, so its opposition is self-serving” (Smith 2012). Google recently paid a fine of over $500 million after a criminal investigation for promoting online pharmacies located in Russia, India and other countries that sold counterfeit drugs to American consumers. Congress had a duty to prevent the “illegal theft of American intellectual property and the counterfeiting of goods like medicine, automotive parts and even baby food pose a serious threat to the health of American consumers” (Smith 2012).
Karen Ranney, a Texas author in Smith’s district, complained that for the last three years, digital thieves had stolen all her books and made them available for free on the Internet. This has been a constant problem for all writers and authors for quite some time, as well magazines and newspapers. They are literally being driven out of business because they cannot earn enough money for their creative work. Ranney had been losing royalties for years, and was engaged in a constant battle with online pirates and thieves, taking down 100-200 links every month that sold her books for free. This happens constantly with music and films on YouTube as well, with thousands of sites regularly taken down because of copyright violations and unauthorized content. Ranney opposed the idea that all information should be free on the Internet since “I don’t create information. I create entertainment, with my imagination and by sitting in a chair for twelve to sixteen hours a day, day after day” (Ranney 2011). She was not wealthy and required royalties to pay for her mortgage and basic expenses, so theft of earnings made it difficult for her to survive. Very few writers were wealthy and now their work was being stolen from websites operated from Russia and China, which “offer thousands of copyrighted books — for free — just because they can” (Ranney 2011). Without SOPA/PIPA all authors, writers, painters and artists were being victimized by theft that benefitted only the owners of illegal websites.
In one of the most successful online protests to date, Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia and other Internet companies blacked out their sites partially or totally on January 18, 2012, and also sent millions of petitions against the proposed legislation. Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and other Internet executives vocally opposed the legislation, while the movie, cable TV and broadcast networks supported it. Massive online opposition caused the Senate to delay action on the bills indefinitely, and even though television largely ignored the entire subject, regular Internet users were largely aware of it. Bloggers like Mike Masnick at Techdirt strongly opposed the bill, while “Declan McCullagh at CNET and Gautham Nagesh at The Hill have produced some of the best sourced coverage around right now and understand both the politics and the technology” (Howard 2011). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had originally intended to bring SOPA/PIPA to a vote very quickly after the recess, although it was being blocked by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). Smith opposed the Widen-Issa OPEN Act as inadequate to protect intellectual property and creating “loopholes that make the Internet even more open to foreign thieves that steal America’s technology and IP without protecting U.S. businesses and consumers. It amounts to a safe harbor for foreign criminals who steal American technology, products and intellectual property” (Smith 2012). It also would have transferred all IP cases to the International Trade Commission (ITC) in Washington which would create unnecessary expenses and litigation. This would be especially onerous to small business that would have to come to Washington and hire expensive, specialist attorneys, while those who openly committed online theft could voluntarily refuse to appear at the ITC. It had no role for the federal judiciary, but only “hearing officers” and administrative law judges in a new federal bureaucracy that the Republicans opposed. Nor could search engines like Google be called before the ITC “when it comes to enforcement of IP rights, even when they knowingly profit by directing consumers to illegal websites” (Smith 2012).
Although Internet issues are increasingly important to society, so far, none of the presidential candidates have addressed the SOPA/PIPA issue, except Rep. Michele Bachmann, and she is now out of the race. Apart from the search engines and their grassroots supporters, this has not been a populist issue in the 2012 campaign. Smith’s committee did not even consult technical experts when it staff drafted the legislation, nor did it consider national security issues, although these have been raised by the FBI, Defense Department, CIA and Department of Homeland Security at least behind the scenes. In general, these agencies doubt that SOFA will work at all and believe that it is “a terrible idea to try to DNS for enforcement” (Howard 2011). Although the U.S. controls most of the major DNS in the world and could block or shut down any website it desired, SOPA/PIPA would criminalize the current DNS standard and automatically block non-U.S. sites.
Copyright laws that are being frequently violated and legal protections of confidential or proprietary information are still very limited in the Internet age. This problem should be receiving more attention than it has at the federal level, even though SOPA is not the best method for dealing with the issue. At present, only social work and the legal, medical and mental health care professions operate under strict ethical and legal guidelines about the protection of confidential records, because without an atmosphere or trust and confidentiality, these professions that gather the most sensitive kind of personal information simply cannot function at all. Anyone who hacks or downloads these records can face criminal and civil penalties that are rarely applied in copyright cases. For example, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which includes a Privacy Rule requiring protection of all confidential information transmitted by phone or electronically. In the last ten years “we have become so accustomed to relying on technology that careful thought is not always given to subtle ways that privacy can be violated” (Corey 227). In an environment with relatively new technologies like email, cell phones, voice mail, clients are rightfully concerned that violations of privacy and leaks of confidential personal information have become more common than ever before. Legal and ethical guidelines prohibit the disclosure of confidential medical, psychiatric and legal information to unauthorized third parties. All providers have to be especially careful about passwords and access codes to voice mail, email and answering machines, or sending information via email and cell phones to persons or organizations other than their clients. Confidential information should never be sent to workplace computers or phones since employees have no right to privacy there. Employers have the right to monitor email and phone calls in their location or using their own telephones and computers, and also to monitor the activities of employees with hidden cameras and other spy devices, so workplace privacy can hardly be said to exist at all.
In short, this is an era of massive violations of privacy rights and individual liberties due to the new technologies of surveillance, data mining, electronic monitoring, biometric chips, spamming, hacking, phishing, and security breaches at major private and public institutions. These new technologies make the protection of privacy rights and copyright-protected material far more difficult than in the pre-electronic past. Given the nature of the Internet, thousands or even millions of people can view postings of confidential or protected materials via You Tube, Google and Facebook postings in a very short time, and they can quickly go ‘viral’ and spread globally almost overnight. Governments also collect data on the entire life cycles of individuals, from birth to death, as well as information on marriages, divorces, legal records, financial histories, voting, motor vehicles and property ownership, all of which could be publicized instantly. Banks, corporations and private organizations in general also collect an immense amount of personal and financial data for credit and marketing purposes. In short, these governmental and private organizations now have considerable power over “individual autonomy and decision making” thanks to these new technologies (Solove 2), but the SOFA/PIPA legislation is not designed to deal with these broader issues of privacy and confidentiality in the Internet era.
Existing laws do allow owners of copyrights to complain to YouTube, Wikipedia and other websites, which are required to take down any material that violates the law. Up to now, though, they have not been held civilly or criminally liable as long as they responded quickly to such requests. Indeed, YouTube today is littered with content that has been blocked or removed on copyright grounds. SOFA would certainly accelerate this process and be applied worldwide, given Internet posters and users little recourse against its application. Moreover, the legislation is very vague on just how broad these proposed new powers will be, and it certainly appears that large media and entertainment corporations are the real force behind. Naturally, they have attempted to create a faux-populism and ‘astroturf’ movement of their own, claiming to care about staring artists and writers who are losing out on royalties owed to them. In reality, of course, these giant companies have been very nervous about the Internet ever since it was invented, since has been costing them money for quite some time. Once SOPA is passed — if it ever is — smaller and newer websites may not be able to accept content from users at all for fear of being shut down or facing legal action. More and more, they will be forced to accept the paid content provided by the large media and entertainment corporations, which seems to be the true goal of legislation like SOPA/PIPA.
Corey, G. et al. Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions, 8th Edition. Cengage Learning, 3011.
Howard, Alexander. “What You Need to Know About the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012.” The Huffington Post, December 23, 2011.
Ranney, Karen. “Digital Thieves Are Stealing from Me.” The Hill, December 13, 2011.
Smith, Lamar. “Fighting Online Piracy.” New York Times, January 6, 2012.
Smith, Lamar. “OPEN Act Increases Bureaucracy, Won’t Stop IP Theft.” U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, January 19, 2012.
Solove, D.J. et al. Privacy, Information, and Technology. Aspen Publishers, 2006.
Statement from Chairman Smith on Senate Delay of Vote on PROTECT IP Act. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 2011.
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