Stopping SOPA

The fight for lasting internet freedom — and security — has only just begun
By EDITORIAL  |  January 18, 2012


You can almost breathe a sigh of relief, though the fight is long from over. As of this writing, it looks increasingly as if Congress will — miraculously — fail to break the Internet.

It won't be for lack of trying. On Wednesday, homepages went dark on Web sites ranging from Reddit and Wikipedia to BoingBoing and I Can Has Cheezburger, to protest the evil twins of anti-piracy legislation — the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister, the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) — which collectively pose one of the greatest threats to free speech in America in the past 50 years. For much of the winter, it seemed inevitable that some version of the bills would pass — even as it became increasingly apparent that Congress didn't understand even the most basic mechanics of the systems they proposed to regulate.

Lobbyists for the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, all four major sports leagues, and dozens of other copyright fundamentalists have spent $92 million attempting to convince our elected officials that the best way to protect American intellectual property is, in the words of Vice magazine, "giving copyright holders and the government overreaching, due process–circumventing powers to shut down entire Web sites based on the mere suspicion that they might contain infringing material." A letter co-signed by AOL, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Zynga warned that the legislation would sweep away 15 years of precedent by destroying the "safe harbor" protection extended to service providers who make a good-faith effort to remove infringing content from their sites. The North Carolina Tea Party warned that it would "severely cripple free speech and stifle innovation online." One of George W. Bush's former homeland-security policy chiefs wrote in an op-ed for Politico that the proposed laws "could kill our best hope for actually securing the Internet," and added that the measures would also fail miserably at preventing piracy.

If passed, the bills would allow the attorney general to disappear Web sites suspected of linking to infringing content — without a trial. The ensuing blacklist of these sites would be enforced using the same technology deployed by authoritarian governments to censor their citizens' access to the Internet. In fact, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former Beijing bureau chief for CNN, SOPA and PIPA "would strengthen China's Great Firewall and even bring major features of it to America."

As popular opposition to the bills mounted this month, President Barack Obama delivered a long-overdue response, in the form of two guidelines that he said would govern the administration's policy. They were simple, straightforward, and almost reassuring: don't censor free speech. And don't mess with the underlying mechanics of the Internet. Within hours, the bills' sponsors were backing away from some of the legislation's most inflammatory provisions, and the New York Times was (prematurely, as it happened) declaring the bills effectively dead.

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