Thursday, January 19, 2012

A different perspective on SOPA/PIPA

I have not had the time to comprehensively demolish the more hysterical aspects of the criticism being levelled at SOPA/PIPA.  I have read the proposed bills, and they are far from perfect.  But they are far from warranting much of what has been said about them.
Without endorsement, and in the absence of an opportunity to write my own response to the critics of SOPA/PIPA, I simply offer this comment from Thomas Carpenter form the American Federation of TV & Radio Artists.
The misinformation about this bill is akin to "WMDs in Iraq." The more you repeat the lies, and the louder you shout, the more people start to believe them. The content industries employ millions of people, many of whom have good-paying middle-class union jobs, and it's one of the few industries where the US actually has a trade surplus. But law enforcement doesn't have the same tools available to stop the trafficking of stolen content abroad, that they have stateside. This legislation would fix that.

An important provision of the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act allows only the Department of Justice to go to federal court to obtain an order for a search engine to stop linking to a foreign criminal website. Then—and only if ordered by a judge—will search engines simply be required not to return search results that include links to a specified foreign rogue site.

Removing foreign criminal websites from search results is crucial to preventing their access to the American market. Search engines serve as the portal to foreign criminal websites. Anyone looking for free movies or illegal prescription drugs can find them within seconds on search engines like Google. Even U.S. consumers seeking legitimate products or content are often unwittingly directed to criminal sites through the results provided by search engines, which was highlighted in a 2010 study by McAfee regarding the risks associated with visiting piracy sites. Requiring search engines not to direct users to these criminal websites will help protect consumers and preserve the marketplace for legitimate American companies, whose products and creative works today are often buried in search results below those for rogue sites.

Companies opposed to the legislation that rely on search engines for much of their revenue, especially Google, have objected to the provisions requiring them not to direct users to foreign sites found to be illegal by a federal court. First, they argue that such requirements would be ineffective because users would find alternate ways to find rogue websites. But this argument cannot withstand scrutiny. In fact, a frequently noted conventional wisdom among many in the Internet community is that if a website is not listed on the first or second page of Google search results, it simply “does not exist.” Consumers use search engines to find products they want. If the foreign criminal websites, which often appear legitimate, are no longer listed, then consumers will be much more likely to visit safe, legitimate websites and purchase goods from law-abiding American companies. Of course, no single tactic is 100% effective and some dedicated users will still find their way to free stolen content. But, as with all crime, just because it cannot be completely eradicated does not mean we should abandon the fight.

Second, companies opposed to the bills claim that court orders not to link to websites, even if they are engaged in wholesale illegal activity, constitute “censorship.” However, this ignores the fact that Google and other search engines already alter their search results every day, with no effect on free speech. In fact, Google boasts that through November 2011 they “have processed takedown notices for nearly 5 million items,” all without a court order in response to DMCA notices from copyright owners or requests from trademark holders. To argue that it would be “censorship” to engage in similar action for foreign websites, where there exists the additional safeguard of a federal judge determining whether the entire site is illegal and thus subject to an order, is without merit. Google makes more decisions about website and search blocking than any other company or country in the world, and free speech has not suffered from existing compliance with search result takedown notices.

Congress needs to act now on these bills. The failure to pass meaningful legislation will result in overseas websites continuing to be a safe haven for criminals stealing and profiting from American creativity. As the Obama Administration stated on January 14, "Online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs."

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