With debate on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) slated to begin in the House on December 15, we caught up with James O’Keefe, Captain of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, to talk about the Pirates and their stance on recent anti-piracy bills in Congress.  

Give a quick rundown of the Pirates. What are you all about?
Globally, the Pirate Party movement [which has representatives in the European Parliament and branches around the world] focuses on making sure that individuals have privacy and governments don’t. We’re about ensuring that our cultural commons are available to all and not monopolized by the few. It’s a movement focused on figuring out ways to increase innovation to solve the myriad problems our society faces. And it focuses on issues of corporate power and transparency to ensure that corporations do not have more rights than people.

What has that looked like in Massachusetts so far?
Early this year we gained official recognition from the state elections office — you can now register as a “Pirate” as your party affiliation, the same as registering yourself as a Republican or Democrat. Since gaining recognition we’ve focused on getting our message out on the need for municipal and state government transparency, personal privacy, copyright and patent reform, and expanding Internet access. We’re also seeking out candidates to run on a Pirate platform in 2012.

What are SOPA and PIPA?
PIPA, or the Protect-IP Act, is a Senate bill introduced in May 2011, and SOPA is its counterpart in the House, introduced in October of this year.

The issue with both bills is fundamentally whether we want to allow the US government and even private parties to censor the Internet to combat “piracy.”

These bills allow both the government and private copyright holders [such as the Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording Industry Association of America, both of which support SOPA and PIPA] to take down sites that carry or host copyrighted material. Some of the methods could be requiring Paypal to stop doing business with “offending” websites, or requiring Google to stop linking to them or carrying their ads, or even seizing domain names outright.

How do these measures change the game?

It’s a question of due process, theft and censorship. Now, in the current system, the copyright holder goes before a judge and claims a website is infringing copyright, and the website is allowed to contest it. Under DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998), there is at least an appeals process, but SOPA and PIPA contain no real judicial oversight. The mere accusation of infringing copyright would be enough to seize a site and its funds, or coerce Internet service providers to take pages down. Domain names are a form of property, and this would absolutely be theft.

What sort of long-range effects do you foresee if bills like these are enacted?

This certainly has potential for creating a Great Firewall for the U.S. We saw this with WikiLeaks: through pressure on Visa, Mastercard and Paypal, the government effectively shut off its citizens’ ability to give money to WikiLeaks, even though they weren’t convicted of anything.

And under these bills, it’s not only government anymore. One of the reasons this is so troubling is that the entertainment industry routinely abuses laws already in place.  They pick someone and make an example of them. And by and large the government has gone along with it. Some of the damages awarded has been astronomical relative to the damage actually done. A kid shares fifteen songs worth $15 on iTunes, and they’re hit for tens of thousands of dollars for “piracy.” We’ve seen the entertainment industry go overboard like this consistently, and we must assume that they will use tools like these to shut down sites they don’t like.  This is where so much of the censorship problems lies.

Have Massachusetts politicians taken a stance on these bills? 
Both Kerry and Brown seem to be on the fence. Neither has come forward either way, at least. Capuano has said that he has concerns over the implications SOPA holds for net freedom.

How do measures like SOPA and Protect-IP square with the Obama administration’s push against global Internet censorship?
It sets a tricky precedent to say that it is alright for the U.S. to censor based on claims of copyright, but then scold China for doing the same based on government views. We don’t believe that the Internet should be censored by anyone for any reason. So these efforts to create a censorship system will absolutely undermine our efforts in other countries. China and others will use it as justification: If the U.S. blacklists sites, why can’t we?

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Shawn is a contributing writer and photographer in [perpetual] need of a good nap.