The internet, having become the ubiquitous tool for discovering information, communicating, conducting business and socializing, has completely transformed modern society. Do you remember life before email? Before search engines? Remember having to go to the library to pick up tax forms and to figure out the proper zip code for an address? Remember having to buy a newspaper to look up movie times?
The advent of the “internet age” has brought with it unprecedented access to information along with an entire new platform for innovation—a platform unconstrained by traditional physical limitations such as limited radio frequencies and expensive floor space. Perhaps more than anything, the internet has broken down some of the traditional barriers to entry for businesses, and unleashed a whole new generation of entrepreneurs. People who start their own businesses can reach consumers around the world by creating a website; people looking for speciality products can find new suppliers; people with obscure interests can find fellow devotees. The ability to distribute ideas, products and resources around the globe is endlessly empowering and the fact that the internet is not centrally controlled means that anyone and everyone can participate.
It is not surprising then, that Congress’ most recent attempt to police the internet in the name of combating copyright piracy was supported by those whose traditional means of profiting are most threatened by the internet’s facilitation of information sharing—namely the music and movie picture industry. Even if copyright protection is a valid regulatory goal, there is good reason to be skeptical of regulations that interfere with free speech and that attempt to centralize control of the internet.
The House Bill, The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would require internet provides and search engines to take affirmative steps to prevent access to sites that host copyrighted material. It also contains a particularly heinous provision allowing copyright holders to force ad networks and host sites to cease doing business with any website that allegedly contains pirated material within 5 days of receiving a mere allegation. The related Senate Bill, Protect IP (PIPA) authorizes the Justice Department to bring civil charges against the owner of any domain name that hosts copyright-infringing materials. It also allows copyright holders to bring a private action against any infringing website. According to Google’s Public Policy Director, this legislation would spell the end for You-Tube and other popular sites because of the sheer infeasibility of ensuring that all hosted materials are not infringing copyrights.
The good news is that the en masse protests across the internet last Wednesday have temporarily shut down Congress’ resolve to pass these two bills. At the behest of internet giants Google and Wikipedia, a reported 8 million people looked up their representatives’ contact information, while 7 million signed Google’s online petition. By Friday morning, Representative Lamar Smith, SOPA’s sponsor, said the House would postpone considering SOPA, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cancelled a planned vote on PIPA. Support from other congressional representatives continues to hemorrhage.
It appears that innovation, free speech and decentralization have won the day, at least for the time being. Let’s hope the trend continues.