Hearings on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the House Judiciary Committee began last Thursday under a hail of public outcry and massive online mobilization by national groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Demand Progress. Net freedom allies rejoiced at Friday’s abrupt announcement that the hearings would be continued at the “earliest practical day that Congress is in session,” a move many assumed meant the bill would be tabled until next year. Turns out hearings will resume this Wednesday. We again caught up with James O’Keefe, Captain of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, to talk about SOPA’s prospects as the legislative session comes to a close.
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 forcing Google to stop listing them, or even seizing domain names outright.
How do these measures change the game?
It’s a question of due process. 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.
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. We’ve seen the entertainment industry go overboard [in enforcing copyright] 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.
How have the SOPA hearings gone so far?
It seems the majority of the House Judiciary Committee is completely willing to kowtow to the entertainment companies and censor the Internet. They’ve demonstrated a complete unwillingness to learn of the damage this bill could cause to the Internet — they don’t understand the technology, and have called no expert witnesses to the hearings who do. They’ve blocked every amendment to make the bill more sensible, just like we saw in the Senate with PIPA.
What’s with Friday’s hearing fakeout? Why the abrupt delay until Wednesday?
For a second there it seemed as if the bill’s sponsors had recognized that there were a number of complaints and problems with SOPA, and there was certainly support for having it withdrawn from committee and reexamined next year.
But I think Wednesday’s timing makes it pretty clear how much the entertainment industry wants SOPA rammed through the House.
Is there any silver lining to the delay?
Even a delay until Wednesday is good in certain respects – we can urge people to contact their representatives and urge them to come out against the bill. But it’s still a very fast timeline. Putting a pause on the process until January would allow more measured views to come forward. Not to mention there are so many other issues in more urgent need of attention before Congress breaks for the holidays. The sheer incompetence is astonishing.
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. People need to let their representatives know where they stand, and fast.