The battle over internet piracy

Rhode Island's congresional delegation splits over the issue burning up the netroots
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  January 18, 2012

The Internet is angry. Perhaps you've heard.

On January 18, as the Phoenix went to press, web heavyweights Wikipedia and reddit went dark to protest a pair of bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate — that aim to crack down on Internet piracy.

You know, illegal copies of the latest Mission: Impossible confection or Katy Perry nonsense.

For supporters of the legislation — Hollywood, the music industry, the US Chamber of Commerce — it's a no-brainer: web pirates cost the country billions per year and trade not just in illicit movies, but in counterfeit pharmaceuticals and defective auto parts that pose real safety risks.

For critics, though, the measures are overly broad attacks that could stifle the next Facebook and wreak havoc on the Internet's open ethos.

The debate has upended all the usual alliances in Washington. Among the opponents, for instance, are liberal doyenne Nancy Pelosi and cackling Texas libertarian Ron Paul.

It is the left and right, it seems, against the center.

But even that maxim goes only so far. Look no further than Rhode Island, where Senator Sheldon Whitehouse — a reliable liberal if there ever was one — is a co-sponsor of PIPA, calling it a "sensible, bipartisan response" to a "serious problem."

Congressman James Langevin — Rhode Island's steady centrist, and a Cassandra on cybersecurity, no less — declared his opposition to the bills weeks ago. "I think SOPA and PIPA are taking a sledgehammer to a problem where perhaps a scalpel would serve," he tells me.

And with the netroots ablaze, Senator Jack Reed and Congressman David Cicilline came out against the legislation as the Phoenix's deadline approached, joining other newly-minted opponents in Congress. With the Obama administration voicing deep misgivings, a measure that seemed destined to pass just last month likely won't without significant revision.

But it isn't dead yet; and the concerns of copyright holders at its root are still very much alive, leaving some confounding questions still to be answered. Who's right: Disney or Google, Whitehouse or Langevin? The answers are not as clear-cut as partisans on either side would have you believe.


Piracy is, undoubtedly, a big problem; the Motion Picture Association of America claims it costs the nation $58 billion per year and the Chamber of Commerce says it puts 19 million jobs in jeopardy.

The numbers are probably inflated — as are most claims in this debate. But there is little doubt that online theft of copyrighted works is a major issue for the legacy entertainment industry; just ask the teenager next door where he got the last Kanye West record.

The trouble is many of the so-called "rogue sites" engaged in piracy are based overseas and beyond the reach of American law enforcement. The SOPA and PIPA remedy: starve these foreign sites out of existence by compelling search engines like Google and Yahoo! to eliminate links and forcing payment processors like PayPal and ad networks to stop doing business with them.

Sounds clever enough. But critics are skeptical that the bills would do much to slow down the pirates. And the measures, they say, would inflict unacceptable collateral damage. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, says SOPA would be "the end of the Internet as we know it."

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