Online piracy threatens the Web’s economic foundation, but a proposed bill to stop it poses an even greater threat to consumers and owners of large – and small – Web sites. If the bill passes you might lose the opportunity to shop at new, innovative ecommerce sites, or watch videos on sites like YouTube.
Before I explain how the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, would work, I want to be very clear on my opposition to the piracy of software and other intellectual property such as music, movies and videos. Software piracy alone costs the technology industry and related parts of the economy billions of dollars a year. It is theft, it discourages innovation (why develop something when you won’t get paid?) and it raises prices for honest shoppers.
There’s no disagreement that it’s time crack down on the pirates. But SOPA, a proposed law backed by the movie, recording and pharmaceutical industries — and opposed by much of the technology industry, consumer rights advocates, and civil libertarians — goes much too far, and represents one of the most significant threats in years to the Web and companies that base their business on it.
How SOPA would work
The bill is meant to prevent the theft of online intellectual property, especially from foreign Web sites that steal content from U.S. firms. SOPA allows the U.S. attorney general to seek a court order against such sites to block them, using technical means such as DNS filtering.
If that were all it did, there would still be reason for concern — letting the government mess with the DNS system is dangerous — but it would not have set off nearly as many alarms. However, SOPA also directs ISPs, search engines, ad networks, and payment providers to withhold services to websites that are deemed by a court to be infringing copyrights held by U.S. content producers. What’s more, ISPs must block U.S. Web users’ access to such sites.
Web sites that peddle pirated prescription drugs are a specific target of the bill, which is why the pharmaceutical industry supports it.
The bill is supported by tech heavyweights Microsoft, Apple and Adobe, a disappointing, but somewhat understandable position, since those companies bear the brunt of software piracy. It is, though, opposed by other key technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay, whose businesses would be threatened. In testimony before a Congressional committee this week, Google’s Katherine Oyama made the stakes crystal clear.
“Countless Websites of all kinds — commercial, social, personal — could be shuttered or put out of business based on allegations that may or may not be valid. The bill sweeps in innocent websites that have violated no law, and imposes harsh and arbitrary sanctions without due process,” said Oyama, Google’s copyright policy counsel.
Imagine, she says, a new Website called Dave’s Online Emporium, which enables other small businesses to sell clothing and accessories, nearly all of which are entirely legitimate. But one seller has begun offering counterfeit goods, without of course, telling Dave.
Just about any private party, including a patent troll, with an axe to grind could send a notice to third parties that do business with Dave, such as advertising or payment companies, to terminate services to the site, she says. And they wouldn’t first have to notify law enforcement personnel or anyone else, including Dave, who could be effectively forced out of business if he doesn’t respond within five days.
There is no Dave’s Online Emporium, of course, but real Web sites would be affected in just that way — and so would the consumers who patronize them. It gets tiresome to be told to email your representatives in Congress, but if you value the Web, take the trouble and tell them to stop this misguided, lobbyist-inspired mess.