Blog Post

If Bills Pass, Say Goodbye to Free Speech on the Internet

If a proposed internet piracy bill is passed in Congress, the government will be able to shut down any website accused of copyright infringement, even without any finding of fact.

In an op-ed appearing in The Hill, Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, says the so-called "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) which began as an attempt to restrain foreign piracy on the Internet has morphed into a bill that is so sweeping it has become a "kill switch" on First Amendment rights.

"Proposed federal legislation purporting to protect online intellectual property would also impose sweeping new government mandates on internet service providers – a positively Orwellian power grab that would permit the U.S. Justice Department to shut down any internet site it doesn’t like (and cut off its sources of income) on nothing more than a whim," Wilson writes.

The bill was originally meant to deal a blow to online pirates and producers of counterfeit brand products like designer fashions and medicines and to crack down on websites operating outside the U.S. But the way the bill is written is so sweeping that it amounts to overkill of the problem.

Under SOPA, all that’s required for the government to shutdown a specific website is an accusation that the site unlawfully featured copyrighted content. The accusation need not be proven, or even accompanied by probable cause. All that an accuser (or competitor) needs to do is point the finger and the site can be shut down.

In addition, SOPA also grants regulators the ability to choke off revenue from accused sites by naming their online advertisers and payment providers as "co-conspirators" in the alleged piracy.

Who’s vulnerable to this legislation?

“Any website that features user-generated content or that enables cloud-based data storage could end up in its crosshairs,” writes David Sohn, senior policy council at the Center on Democracy and Technology. “[Internet Service Providers] would face new and open-ended obligations to monitor and police user behavior. Payment processors and ad networks would be required to cut off business with any website that rights-holders allege hasn't done enough to police infringement.”

It's not hard to see the impact SOPA, and its companion legislation in the Senate, would have on free speech rights as well as on internet commerce.

Google’s public policy director Bob Boorstin takes it one step further, arguing that the bills “would put the U.S. government in the very position we criticize repressive regimes for doing – all in the name of copyright.”

As Wilson correctly points out, "The proliferation of free expression on the Internet has spawned a vibrant new marketplace of ideas – toppling the old legacy media construct and ushering in an era of enhanced accountability in which thousands of new voices provide heightened scrutiny of our elected officials."

Silencing these voices would exact a heavy toll.

In a letter urging their colleagues to oppose SOPA, U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Darrell Issa speak to this very concern.

“Online innovation and commerce were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2004 to 2009,” said U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Darrell Issa in a letter to their colleagues urging them to oppose SOPA. “Before we impose a sprawling new regulatory regime on the Internet, we must carefully consider the risks that it could pose for this vital engine of our economy.”

Even more galling is that the two aides who wrote the legislation for their bosses, Allison Halataei, former deputy chief of staff for House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Lauren Pastarnack, former senior aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have both taken new jobs in the entertainment industry which stands to benefit the most from the law they wrote. Their new job? To help run the campaign to push the law through Congress.

Safeguarding intellectual property rights is an important goal because it is vital to the proper functioning of a free market and to preserving its innovative potential, Wilson writes, but this can't be done at the expense of free speech and due process rights.

"SOPA is the equivalent of curing a headache with a guillotine. It may stop piracy, but it would shut down our economy and unconstitutionally erode our most basic freedoms in the process."

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