SOPA: Hollywood vs. The Internet
What is SOPA?
There is a battle brewing in Washington that pits Hollywood against the entire Internet. Seriously.
A recent proposal called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA), H.R. 3261, will be voted upon this year, and it is truly breathtaking in the damage it will do to the Internet as we know it. There are many details to this proposal, found here, and the current draft exempts websites that end in .com, .org and .net. And the proposal is constantly being amended as disasters are pointed out.
But the thing to remember is that censorship or “blacking out” of whole websites will be easily accomplished by an uncontested application to a federal judge. The application could be made by a federal prosecutor or private copyright owner, who need only assert that the website in question is “dedicated to infringing activities,” without the necessity of a contested hearing or even notice given to the operators of the website. That’s it!
How Could SOPA Affect Business Online?
Once the judge signs the order, a whole series of actions have to be taken by American service providers, from domain name registrars (like Network Solutions), search engines (like Google), online advertisers (like isocket.com), web-hosting companies (like Go Daddy or Austin, Texas firm - green hosting GreenHostIt), and financial processors (like Paypal), have to end all dealings with the website in question. Obviously, this would create a whole new hassle for domestic Internet companies, no matter what their involvement in the Internet. SOPA even has a provision where a copyright-owner could petition a financial processor directly, without the involvement of a judge, and the financial processor would have five days to cease doing business with that website.
Free Speech or Censorship?
One would think that the approach outlined in SOPA would be an obvious denial of due process and therefore unconstitutional, not only for the foreign websites blacked out, but also for the domestic concerns who will need to comply with the shut-down orders. After all, Internet speech and business contracts will be voided without any notice or contested hearing. This is the conclusion of many law professors who have written a letter on SOPA, as well as noted free speech scholar Lawrence Tribe of Harvard Law School. But the SOPA supporters are charging ahead anyway.
What is it about Washington DC that drives otherwise seemingly-rational people to favor such boneheaded proposals? Maybe it is the drinking water there. Or the money,
GreenHostIt’s CEO, S. Rosendahl, explained.
I could see the representatives from southern California, like Reps. Judy Chu, Joe Baca and Howard Berman, supporting SOPA, and, in fact, Maplight has reported that the co-sponsors of SOPA have received four times as much campaign cash from entertainment industry as from software and Internet companies. But many other representatives whose districts have nothing to do with Hollywood are also indicating their support for this bill.
What is even more troubling for the opponents of SOPA is the ignorance of the representatives voting on SOPA. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post recently wrote about the nightmare of watching congressmen debate SOPA after having openly admitted that they don’t know much about the Internet. “There ought to be a law,” she wrote, “that in order to regulate something you have to have some understanding of it.” Noah Nelson, of Turnstyle News, speculated “You’d almost think someone was paying them to be stupid.”
Mike Masnick of Techdirt was even more disgusted after watching a recent congressional hearing on SOPA: “what was clear, from the beginning, was that the SOPA supporters were not there in good faith. They had no intention of listening to reasonable suggestions to fix the bill, and stuck together as a bloc to reject pretty much all of them -- even while admitting their own ignorance.”
And SOPA is not a typical Republican and Democrat controversy, with both proponents and opponents of SOPA from both parties. Indeed, one doesn’t normally see Nancy Pelosi and Zoe Lofgren opposing the same legislation as Darrell Issa and Ron Paul. Even the Heritage Foundation has taken a position against SOPA, while Riddit users and Red State have vowed to encourage primary challenges against any representative who supports SOPA. EFF has put together an online toolkit to help SOPA opponents.
SOPA Bill Affects Venture-Capital Investing
Even venture-capital investors are lining up to get out of line in investing in the next Facebook or Twitter, and who can blame them? Would you want to invest money in a start-up Internet company that will possibly have legal liability issues? Clearly, investing in a liability magnet start-up is not a good investment.
As venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote, “venture capitalists will think more than twice about putting $3 million of early stage capital into startups if they know that the vast majority of the funds will go to pay lawyers to defend the companies instead of to hire engineers to create and build product.”
Will Rogers once wrote that “every time Congress makes a joke it's a law. And every time Congress makes a law it's a joke.” Rogers is probably looking down and having a good laugh at the truly idiotic proposal to stop online piracy, otherwise known as SOPA. I agree with Neil Stevens, at Red State Tech At Night, when he wrote: Kill. The. Bill,
About the Author:
Tom Thurlow is an attorney who practices law in the San Francisco Bay area and manages the blog Napa Whine Country. He lives in Napa County with his wife Martina and daughter Rachel.