November 15, 2011
Why I Oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)/E-PARASITES Act
By Eric Goldman
[Note: I've been working on this post for about 2 weeks, so my apologies if my comments are duplicative of the intervening discussion about the bill]
The DMCA online safe harbors have worked pretty well over the past 13 years. I don't know that anyone loves the compromise, but everyone seems to have done OK. We've seen an explosion of UGC websites fueled by the safe harbor, and content owners as an industry have done pretty well for themselves financially and have developed a working relationship with most major UGC sites.
The Stop Online Piracy Act, with its ridiculously named subpart the "E-PARASITE Act," doesn't expressly modify 17 USC 512. Nevertheless, it is a full-fledged assault on the safe harbor's scheme. It employs the same basic notice-and-takedown structure of 512, but it applies the cutoff obligations to payment processors and ad networks (thus effectively reversing Perfect 10 v. ccBill and Perfect 10 v. Visa), expands--for the first time--the takedown obligations to trademarks (thus embracing and expanding Gucci v. Frontline), expands the takedown obligations to cover anti-circumvention in addition to the 17 USC 106 rights, expands the reasons why a rightsowner can complain, and does not give the governed intermediaries any business incentive to stand up for user content. On the latter point, because SOPA is designed to cut off the cash, each and every UGC item potentially jeopardizes its entire economic enterprise of a website hosting it. In other words, if the website goes offline because of cash flow problems caused by the cutoff attributable to a single UGC content item, all of the UGC on that website goes dark because of a single content item. Talk about collateral damage.
Thus, among other adverse consequences, if SOPA passed, it effectively repeals 17 USC 512 by shifting most of the action to the notice-and-takedown process in SOPA. In doing so, SOPA radically changes the balance between content owners and UGC websites. Despite the FUD from the content industry and other bill supporters about the supposedly serious problems caused by "rogue" websites and the supposedly fine-grained targeting of this bill, make no mistake--this law mortally threatens the entire UGC community.
There are a lot of other serious problems with the law and I'll discuss a few in a moment, but let me step back for a moment. Some legislative proposals, even if everyone knows they won't pass, are nevertheless useful for sparking healthy conversation among disparate communities. SOPA is not such a law. It doesn't seek to engender productive conversations. Instead, it goes out of its way to pit Silicon Valley v. Hollywood. This fosters unhealthy and antagonistic conversations, and the ongoing battle between the two diverts valuable resources that could be used to enrich both communities. See, e.g., the $100M+ that Google has spent fighting Viacom in the YouTube lawsuit--a huge amount of money that could have been instead invested in new services that benefit consumers, help rightsowners make more money and generally improve society.
Further, this law represents the worst kind of rent-seeking we see from incumbent industries. One approach to drafting legislation is to put so many objectionable concepts into a single bill that the opponents feel like they won if they clean up 50% of the problems, but that still leaves the other 50% of nasties to get through the system. I find it dispiriting that we must spend a lot of resources just to preserve the status quo from this type of industry overreaching. I support democracy for the reasons articulated by Winston Churchill, but I wished I lived in a democracy where attempts at legislative manipulation like SOPA were obviously DOA and led to its proponents suffering appropriately adverse consequences for their overreach.
In addition to the trumping of the 512 notice-and-takedown provisions, other major structural deficiencies of the law include:
* attempting to reinstantiate geographic borders on the Internet. Perhaps rebordering the Internet is inevitable, but it's bad policy for the United States to be cutting off transborder data flows, even for the putatively noble purpose of suppressing copyright infringement. Basically, the law provides a roadmap to foreign governments on how to reinstantiate geographic borders over their Internet connections, and they won't limit their censorship to copyright infringement. Instead, they'll go for the whole enchilada to restrict every type of foreign content the governments object to. (It seems virtually inevitable that we'll do the same in the US too, but that's a separate post). It will be hard for us to criticize those foreign governments' efforts because we taught them how to do it. The retort that we only deemed border reinstantiation worthy for copyright infringement and no other content type will ring hollow. When the Internet balkanizes into the US Internet, which looks nothing like the Egypt Internet, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. I encourage the act's proponents to think very carefully whether such a Balkanized Internet will make them less money in the long run.
* The imposition of cutoff obligations on a wide variety of intermediaries, including Internet access providers and search engines in addition to the payment processors and ad networks I discussed above.
* Terms that don't lend themselves to precise statutory definitions, including "Internet advertising service," "Internet search engine," and "Internet site." All of these definitions are broad, ambiguous and based on assumptions about current technology. They don't make sense today and will look even sillier 10 years from now.
* the complete absence of empirical evidence supporting the need for any changes, or that the proposed changes fix any important problem. The collateral consequences would be unacceptable even if this evidence existed; without it, it's hard to interpret this law as a good faith effort to improve society.
While most of the discussion has been justifiably focused on the cutoff provisions, I also want to call your attention to Section 205 of SOPA. The way I read it, it proposes to build a huge bureaucracy of foreign diplomats whose sole job is to advance the interests of US IP owners in foreign countries. We already have problems with USTRs being IP maximalists, but this section would dramatically expand the number of IP maximalists in the US diplomatic corps. I'm not sure I have a good handle on all of the implications, but it seems like (1) we'll have more opportunities for the revolving door from IP owners to government and back, (2) this will further inculcate the agenda of legacy/incumbent IP industries into our government policy, and (3) we will have more boots on the ground to push the US IP maximalist agenda on other countries as part of our doctrinal imperialism.
There has been a lot of commentary about the bills. Some links worth exploring:
SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet (an excellent single-stop resource to begin your research)
[I know you're already reading Techdirt, but no one is doing a better job of chronicling the day-to-day SOPA developments than Mike Masnick.]
MPAA Helped Police Seize 'Pirated' DVDs That Were Actually Fully Authorized [a must-read article of how content owners who should know better nevertheless mistakenly accuse legitimate businesses of infringing activity and, using the power of law enforcement, shut down legitimate businesses and cost Americans jobs]
Larry Downes, News.com, SOPA: Hollywood's latest effort to turn back time
Future of Music Coalition, Coming Clean on SOPA
Rebecca MacKinnon, New York Times, Stop the Great Firewall of America
Public Knowledge, SOPA and Section 1201: A Frightening Combination
James Temple, San Francisco Chronicle, Stop Online Piracy Act would stop online innovation
What You Can Do
If your member of Congress is supporting the law, remember that fact come election time. Before then, some things you can do today:
Sign the petition at Whitehouse.gov
Sign the petition at Avaaz
If you qualify, sign the Educators' Letter to Congress
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