There was something refreshing in the political scene Wednesday when congressional sponsors ran away, as fast as they could, from two ill-considered bills that sought to stamp out Internet piracy by more or less stamping out the Internet.
Maybe it was the bipartisanship of the online smackdown’s target. Most Americans are fed up with the never-ending electioneering between Republicans and Democrats, who seem to launch the next campaign as soon as the polls close. Last year, the two parties and the two houses of Congress could not seem to get together on anything. But legislators of both persuasions were elbow-deep in the muck of somehow trying to apply U.S. copyright laws to web sites located everywhere except inside the United States. It was fun to watch them scurry together in search of cover.
Or maybe it was the public humiliation inflicted on the nation’s two most ham-handed defenders of intellectual property, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Most of us know the RIAA for its past practice of suing teenagers, their moms and grandmothers, and dorm-dwelling college students for illegally sharing and downloading music files. Earlier, the good folks at the MPAA were behind the film industry’s attempt nearly three decades ago to squelch video cassette recorders because they feared owners would retain copies of movies that were broadcast on television. Fortunately for the film industry, it lost the Betamax case, and a profitable market for pre-recorded videos developed as a result. These days the studios seem almost deft by comparison, with their public service announcements featuring union-scale crew members who urge viewers not to download videos illegally.
Music and movie companies are not wrong to want to protect their products from theft. They just have a remarkable talent for making themselves look nasty in the process.
I think the most satisfying aspect of this week’s developments is the way the online community rose up to fight back. The most visible blow came from Wikipedia, which blacked out its English-language site for 24 hours to protest the two bills. Some of Wikipedia’s contributing editors reportedly objected to the service, which strives for impartiality in its articles, injecting itself into a public policy debate. But as a financial contributor to Wikipedia, I had no complaints. Precisely because it is non-commercial and user-supported, Wikipedia has no vested interest in the tug of war over copyrighted content, and its point of view (and vast user base) added a powerful voice to the political debate.
Elsewhere, Google covered the logo on its home page with a black patch. Visitors who clicked on the patch or on a separately labeled link were directed to an online petition opposing the legislation. Wired.com blacked out the headlines on its home page. Popular blogging site WordPress.com censored its “Freshly Pressed” highlights page. By at least one estimate, as many as 7,000 sites may have joined the protest. The protest attracted worldwide attention, as outlets like the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper rounded up some of the more interesting screen shots.
To its credit, the Obama administration got ahead of the curve when it announced last weekend that the president would not sign the legislation in its original form. The first drafts of the bills would have demanded that U.S.-based service providers corrupt the net’s domain name service, which is the system that translates a name such as Google.com into a sequence of numbers that point to a particular data server. This would be a technical nightmare and could open all sorts of new possibilities for the thieves, hackers and other genuine black hats who prowl the online world from the most lawless corners of the globe.
But even with last-minute changes, the legislation would have allowed the U.S. attorney general to create a blacklist of foreign sites that allegedly infringed U.S. intellectual property. There would have been limited court review and even more limited avenues for appeal. Search engines would have been required to withhold results from such sites; service providers would be required to prevent American web surfers from reaching them; and payment services such as Paypal would be barred from remitting funds to them. The easiest way for U.S. residents to see the entire Internet, once such legislation is passed, would be to check into a hotel in Canada.
Though the legislation did not explicitly target U.S. providers like Google, those organizations noted that it would impose major headaches, such as vetting every site that hosts a source document or, in some cases, it would force them to lie to users by stating that no relevant search results are available. Also, the American approach to censoring foreign sites would be an invitation for other democratic governments to impose their own restrictions. Britain would likely assert its Official Secrets Act and pre-trial crime reporting restrictions against Americans. France would want to impose its hate speech limits on documents that Google indexes and archives, and Germany’s anti-Nazi laws would get extraterritorial heft. Not to mention the field day that information-restrictive countries such as Singapore would have. The United States would go from being a global role model for free speech to the global standard-bearer for cross-border censorship.
Well before night fell on Washington, the legislation’s former backers were peeling away from it. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the Senate bill “not ready for prime time,” The New York Times reported. Hatch had been one of its original sponsors.
It is tempting to say that the legislation is dead, killed by a grassroots rebellion of Internet users, but I would not bet on that. Online piracy is not the vast scourge that the old-line media companies pretend that it is when they count each free download as a lost full-price sale, but neither is the theft of American-generated content a trivial matter. Right here at Palisades Hudson, we have had some of our online content lifted and even altered without permission, and in some cases without attribution. Since we are fussy about what we say and where we say it, we take such violations seriously. Our reputation is worth a lot to us.
So the big content publishers will be back. You can sense it in the churlish tweet that RIAA executive Jonathan Lamy posted in the midst of Wednesday’s protest: “After Wikipedia blackrout (sic), somewhere, a student today is doing original research and getting his/her facts straight. Perish the thought.”
As I said, even when they have a valid point, these folks make themselves look nasty. You can’t get far in show business without having some sort of talent.