The unintended consequences of SOPA

 

Last week, Wikipedia blacked its website out in protest of SOPA/ AP Photo

 

It’s a troubling thought. a censored web. The most transformative innovation of the last 30 years blocking access to content. Could SOPA really do all that?

SOPA expands the government’s ability to fight online trafficking of copyrighted property and counterfeit goods. SOPA intends to protect the intellectual property rights of content creators, an admirable goal. Intellectual property has been a staple of the American economy since our country’s inception. It has led to the creation of numerous jobs and its innovations have created a more competitive marketplace. Furthermore, protecting intellectual property ensures profits go to innovators, rather than other websites stealing content. 

However it is not the goals, but the unintended consequences of the act that have people worried. The law would enable courts to order internet companies, online payment processors, and online advertising networks to block the access of sites merely suspected of allowing the trade of pirated goods. 

The fear is that by putting so much power into the court’s hands, by letting them decide what constitutes a rogue site, many legitimate website could be blacked out. In a society that promote free speech and civil liberties above all else, it’s concerning to watch our legislators give judges the authority to arbitrarily stop the flow of information.

This idea of act first and ask questions later is a direct violation of our First Amendment rights. The courts have repeatedly ruled that prior restraint, which is censoring material before it is published, is unconstitutional. Other than in matters affecting national security, it is better for the content to be published and available to society, then censored if need be. And while I do think it is morally wrong and illegal, I do not think it is a threat to our national security to pirate episodes of “How I Met Your Mother.” 

Many tech companies, search engines and advertising agencies have spoken out against the bill. “The Internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the Internet’s development,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. Google also showed its disapproval of the act by blacking out its famous logo. 

This bill seems very much a battle between two familiar foes — music and movie producers versus tech websites. And while the general populous seems to side with tech websites, they still may have something very troubling to worry about. Those websites, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, spent $14.2 million in 2010 on lobbyists. On the other side of the debate, the Entertainment Industry, including Time Warner, Disney and Comcast spent $185.5 million in 2010 on lobbyists.  That stark contrast in funds has many worried about not only SOPA, but future conflicts between these two groups. 

SOPA may be well intentioned, and there’s no debate that piracy is an issue that needs reconciling. But limiting free speech and putting more power in the hands of copyright holders is clearly not the answer. The dissemination of information and ideas is at the crux of what the internet is all about. SOPA undermines these intentions. Fortunately, the House Judiciary Committee postponed plans to draft the bill. However, they remain committed to finding a solution to online piracy.