SOPA's on life support… it's time to pull the plug

editor's corner

Jim O'Neil

Just how much online piracy costs Hollywood each year is open to debate. The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, claims the industry loses some $20.5 billion a year in revenue. CATO Institute research fellow Julian Sanchez puts the number closer to $446 million, saying that even that number could be inflated.

Proponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill put together by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and a dozen co-sponsors, say it would block ad networks and companies like PayPal from doing business with allegedly infringing websites, require ISPs to block access to such sites and ban search engines from displaying results that include them. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, and give immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.

Opponents, which include companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and many more, say the bill would give the government the ability to "censor the web," and even threatens the growth of the tech industry.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin said SOPA and its companion, the Protect IP Act, "would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world."

"Imagine my astonishment when the newest threat to free speech has come from none other than the United States," Brin said.

The legislation is set to be reviewed when Congress returns from its holiday break, and despite spin from backers of the bill that it can be made more palatable to the tech industry, it's likely to face even more opposition as it moves forward.

The White House this weekend said it's not convinced that any current push to enact legislation to combat online piracy is headed in the right direction. Three officials posted on the Administration website that President Obama "will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

The three officials acknowledged the "serious problem" created by foreign websites that are intent on piracy, but said the administration's reservations about freedom of speech made creating such legislation tricky.

The officials, U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, Victoria Espinel, who coordinates intellectual property enforcement in the Office of Management and Budget and Howard Schmidt, the White House cybersecurity coordinator, nevertheless challenged Congress to craft a bill that could be enacted this year.

"While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders," wrote the three. "That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to the principles outlined above in this response."

It's pretty obvious that the process needs to begin anew, and that Smith's bill doesn't have the DNA to move forward. Bottom line? That dog won't hunt. Toss it into the circular file and start fresh.

As Espinel and her colleagues wrote: "Where do we go from here? Don't limit your opinion to what's the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what's right."--Jim