Stop Online Piracy Act: Legitimate Protection or Whistleblower Suppression?

Posted by · November 4, 2011 3:15 pm

After being proposed by the House Judiciary Committee at the end of October, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, has caused quite a stir, but not within the crowd that the Act is purported to target. Instead, human rights watchdogs have expressed significant concern about how sweeping this new law poses to be.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “major casualties” of SOPA could end up being “human rights activists across the world” and “next generation Wikileaks-style whistleblower sites.” And all of this, argues the EFF, would be “in the name of increasing Hollywood’s bottom line.”

While the intent behind a statute like SOPA might be noble, its passage would be, to borrow from California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, “the end of the Internet as we know it.”

By granting even more power to web intermediaries—including social networks and ISPs—SOPA essentially encourages these entities to exercise broad, unilateral censorship. By doing so, argues the EFF, the Act “could forever alter social networks, stifle innovation and creativity, and destroy jobs.”

Instead of leaving such authority in publicly accountable hands, the further privatization of copyright enforcement by SOPA threatens to magnify the already-abusive intellectual property policies that the U.S. is yet to adequately address. Under little more than an unsubstantiated claim that a given site “engages in, enables or facilitates” infringement, a private company will be able to determine its fate with little to no accountability.

Writing for Raw Story, Eric Dolan adds, “Corporations could also use SOPA to force companies to stop processing donations to whistleblower sites that post any documents that are copyrightable or contain trade secrets.”

Whether this is also part of the bill’s intent or not, the threat is nonetheless real if the law is passed. The EFF’s Trevor Trimm notes that even if whistleblower and human rights sites weren’t deliberate targets, “they [Congress] need to press re-set; and next time, consult with the numerous Internet communities the bill could affect, rather than exclusively Hollywood lobbyists.”

As if that weren’t enough, Raw Story notes that SOPA is the “companion bill” to yet another piece of legislation, the PROTECT IP Act, which is equally controversial in nature and, according to CNET’s Declan McCullagh, inconclusively broad.

Fortunately, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden found a way to put that bill on hold back in May, saying in a statement, “I understand and agree with the goal of the legislation, to protect intellectual property and combat commerce in counterfeit goods, but I am not willing to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth to achieve this objective.”

While businesses and organizations including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Broadcasters, which stand to make significant political and economic gains, support both bills, other groups including the Consumer Electronics Association, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, and NetCoalition describe the legislation as a “litigation and liability nightmare for the Internet and technology companies and social media.”

Taking into consideration the primary supporters for both of these bills, it would be wise to spare the already-suffering American economy and instead attempt to craft a new bill that more narrowly addresses legitimate copyright protection concerns without creating victims out of those who pose to better the faltering economy or hold corporations accountable to legal and ethical standards.

To pass these bills as they’re currently constructed would be disastrous.