Two pieces of dangerous legislation are currently being debated in Congress that could forever change the Internet: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). The proponents of these harmful bills claim that it is necessary to stop online piracy, the illegal sale and/or distribution of copyrighted and trademarked products on the Internet. Regardless of how well-intentioned the pieces of legislation may be or one’s perspective on intellectual property laws, SOPA and the Protect IP Act would severely cripple free speech and stifle innovation online.
The Internet is a prime example of what Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek called spontaneous order. One single institution does not control the Internet. This is primarily what makes the Internet so great. Billions of individuals all over the world are free to spread unrestricted information on the Internet. I actually became a libertarian largely because I was exposed to ideas that I never heard before on the free Internet. Can you imagine how terrible the Internet would be if it was centrally planned by the government? A centralized institution cannot possibly know or satisfy the unique wants of billions of individuals across the globe.
Despite the lack of centralized control, the Internet exhibits a high degree of order. As the Taoist Chuang-tzu said, “good order results spontaneously when things are let alone”. Self-policing has worked to a certain degree to keep harmful content off the Internet. As it currently stands, there are no government mandates requiring search engines to remove information. Many websites already voluntarily remove information deemed inappropriate. For instance, Google routinely screens out child pornography from its search results. Facebook and Twitter encourages users to flag malicious content that violates their terms of service. While self-regulation may not be perfect, it is much preferable to government regulation.
The House version SOPA and Senate version PIPA would grant the federal government unprecedented control over the Internet. Both bills would give the federal government the power to shut down literally millions of websites. SOPA, the most dangerous version of the two, contains vague language permitting the government to shut down any website that is found to “engage in, enable or facilitate” copyright infringement. Senior Fellow at New America Foundation Rebecca MacKinnon writes in the New York Times,
The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial. The House version goes further, allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright – a sharp change from current law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification. The intention is not the same as China’s Great Firewall, a nationwide system of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar.
SOPA and PIPA threatens our free speech. These bills forcibly require search engines and other third parties to remove links to rogue websites. This is a clear violation of our constitutional right to free speech as well as a burdensome regulation that will destroy jobs. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all search engines would likely have to hire countless new employees to ensure that no copyright infringing content is posted to prevent their websites from getting shut down by the government.
Social networking sites would surely prefer to spend money on growing their websites rather than complying with costly government rules. David Carr of the New York Times even writes that the bills would “probably not” stop online piracy. He further states that, “even if it made some progress toward reining in rogue sites, the collateral damage would be significant.” These proposed online piracy laws would have disastrous economic consequences while failing to fix the problems that they were supposedly intended to solve.
SOPA and PIPA would undermine the free flow of information on the Internet. This could be a dangerous slippery slope in which the federal government seeks more and more control over the Internet. The Egyptian and Chinese governments have actually shut down citizen access to the Internet over the past few years. Every authoritarian government ultimately desires to have complete control of information and communication technologies.
Twenty-seven Republican lawmakers who strongly opposed net neutrality are strangely cosponsors of SOPA in the House or PIPA in the Senate. Yet, the proposed online piracy laws are equally as bad or perhaps even worse than net neutrality. SOPA and PIPA would disrupt the growth of technology and infringe on free speech. Any individual interested in preserving the freedom of the Internet should not support either version of this dangerous bill.