Dueling story lines for PIPA, SOPA and 'foreign rogue websites'
The debate over "foreign rogue websites" is far from over, but the lobbying battle between tech companies and Hollywood definitely shifted in the geeks' favor this week. Oddly enough, it's because opponents of PIPA and SOPA -- the Protect IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House -- found a more compelling story to tell than Hollywood did.
As is typical with anti-piracy matters, advocates of the bills talked mainly about the damage that copyright and trademark infringement is causing to the entertainment industry, manufacturers and, potentially, consumers (in the form of counterfeit drugs, for example). And as usual, opponents responded by talking about the threat the bills posed to the Internet -- in particular, to Web startups and user-generated content sites.
The difference this time was that opponents put a story that was easier to grasp in front of more people than the bills' advocates did. The anti-PIPA/SOPA meme was that big companies wanted to censor the Net, a far scarier notion to an increasingly Net-reliant population than the thought of overseas websites eating into studios' profits.
Naturally, the debate has inspired more than a little hyperbole. But thanks to poor bill drafting, the original versions of PIPA and SOPA really would have given copyright and trademark owners the power to attack more than just foreign sites that were clearly dedicated to piracy. The lead sponsors have promised to correct some of the worst flaws, but those promises aren't necessarily reflected yet in the copies of the bills available online.
On Wednesday the studios tried to demonize the sites that were protesting the bills, but that seemed tin-eared to me. If they turn the fate of the legislation into a popularity contest between Google or Wikipedia and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, they lose.
MPAA chief Christopher Dodd, for example, accused the protesting sites of punishing the public and lawmakers, turning users into "corporate pawns" and committing an abuse of power by offering users their spin on PIPA and SOPA. And Mike Nugent of Creative America -- an advocacy group for studios and film and TV industry labor groups -- accused sites such as Wikipedia that blacked themselves out in protest of "censoring the Internet themselves."
Note to Nugent: A company that voluntarily takes down its website in protest is engaged in political speech, not censorship. When a court orders Internet service providers and websites to block access to a site because a portion of the site is infringing, that's censorship.
Advocates of the bills argue that censorship is a bogus issue. There's no free-speech right to bootlegged movies or cheap Prada knockoffs. And with the bills' authors backing away from domain name blocking, there's no longer the threat that whole sites would be knocked offline because of infringing links or content on just a few of their pages.
Nevertheless, some tech companies argue that the bills would still enable courts to order search engines (as in the House bill) or any site with an "information location tool" (as in the Senate bill) to remove or disable links to an offending foreign-based domain. That raises the possibility that legitimate content will be rendered invisible -- censored, if you will -- if it's in a domain targeted by a court order.
Is that an improbable scenario? Maybe. But just judging from the takedown notices sent by rights holders under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, tech companies have grounds to be worried. Although the vast majority of those takedown notices have targeted illegal downloads and streams, some have forced the removal of non-infringing goods, including parodies, fair uses of copyrighted excerpts and material authorized or uploaded by the copyright owners themselves.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Nadine Wolf demonstrates against the Stop Online Piracy Act in New York on Wednesday. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images