For the past two months, Congress has been debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, as well as its cohort, the Protect Intellectual Property Act. The legislation aims to protect U.S. intellectual property by blacklisting foreign sites that make unauthorized use of copyrighted content and barring search engines like Google from linking to such sites.
The proponents of the bill do have a legitimate grievance. Some estimates report that piracy has cost owners of the property rights up to $130 million. Not only is this bad economically, but there is also the issue of fairness: the people who create this content deserve to benefit from their efforts.
However, the SOPA debate is not that straightforward. To effectively choke traffic to the offending foreign sites, the law would require action from American sites. Search engines such as Google would have to stop showing the blacklisted sites in search results.
Facebook would have to ensure posts did not link to the illegal material. This tactic, which has the good intentions of stopping foreign piracy, burdens American companies that dominate the online social experience.
The proposed law — which Google, Wikipedia and many other tech firms vehemently oppose — could make community-driven sites such as YouTube liable for illegal content uploaded by users.
Some other sites favored by students may also become victims of the bill. Online communities such as Reddit or Flickr are in precarious positions, as the law potentially allows for an entire domain to be shut down because of a single blog post.
The bill also has implications for speech and international relations. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe argues that it violates the First Amendment, noting that it could cause sites such as Facebook to incur great costs to monitor content. Tribe argues that a small minority of users abusing a site’s capabilities would open the site to lawsuits from the holders of IP rights, and deter innovation and linking to third-party content.
On the international front, the policymakers must consider the possibility of retaliation by foreign governments. How would we react if we were told the British Parliament prevented British search engines from linking to major American sites? While pirating sites are certainly worthy of banishment, anything less than perfect enforcement of the law could deal a tremendous blow to the founding goal of the Internet — the sharing of ideas across great distances and national borders.
Intellectual property is a growing factor in the U.S. economy, and the estimated losses of $130 million make it clear that Congress must act to protect the rights of those who create the content. However, this needs to be done responsibly. Lawmakers need to use a surgeon’s knife, not a lumberjack’s chainsaw, to precisely construct rules protecting property rights, while being clear and fair to those who will be subject to the rules.
The editorial board is composed of the editors of the Collegiate Times