Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Online Freedom: White House pans SOPA

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine's congressional delegation appears to be in a holding pattern while attempting to form positions on two bills that address widespread copyright and trademark violations via the Internet. The bills are controversial because they would make online censorship much easier, more effective, and harder to combat.

Over the weekend, the White House issued a statement objecting to the provisions of both the Protect IP Act of 2011 (pending in the US Senate) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (pending in the House) that would allow sites alleged to host or assist violators to be effectively blacklisted and technologically cut off from the Internet almost entirely.
Here's an example. Let's say that a person posts a video to an online forum without permission from its owner. (We're sure you've never done that.) Under existing law (the Digital Millennium Communications Act), the copyright owner can contact the forum's administrator, demonstrate that someone had violated the owner's copyright, and specify where on the forum the violation occurs. The law would then require the administrator to remove the offending post or link.
Should SOPA and the Protect IP Act pass in their current forms, any person — whether they were or were not the copyright owner — could file a motion in court and receive a judge's order specifying any or all of the following four restrictions: 1) require all US sites and search engines to remove all links to that entire site; 2) ban US online-advertising services from serving ads to that site; 3) bar all US payment networks from conducting transactions to or from that site; and 4) require US Internet service providers to block customer access to the site.
The sweeping restrictions, coupled with the fact that a complainant need not prove ownership of the copyright allegedly being violated (nor any requirement that a copyright violation be proved), have aroused the ire of the Internet community, with free-information sites like Wikipedia and Reddit planning to turn their pages black this week in protest against the bills.
The issue will come before the Senate first; the Protect IP Act is slated for a procedural vote this week. Senator Olympia Snowe's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her position; Senator Susan Collins's spokesman, Kevin Kelley, emailed to say "Senator Collins is still reviewing the bill and has discussed the issue with folks on both sides."
Second District Representative Mike Michaud's spokesman, Ed Gilman, said in an email "We are aware of the concerns that have been raised, and the congressman looks forward to reviewing the final bill when it's available."
Chellie Pingree, 1st District Representative, seemed most on top of the matter. She said through spokesman Willy Ritch's email, "SOPA sounds like it has a noble purpose — stopping online piracy — but the collateral damage from this vaguely worded bill could be significant. I'm convinced that the sweeping language that is used in this bill could have a chilling effect on free speech online. The penalties are overly harsh and it sets up a system in which big entertainment or Internet companies could use the threat of harsh government penalties to effectively stifle competition and innovation."