Offshore piracy of movies, music and books is a serious problem that costs Hollywood and other creators billions in annual revenues. But the two antipiracy bills that stalled in Congress last week were not ready for their close-up. In an attempt to rein in the theft of copyrighted material and intellectual property by offshore websites, the bills overreached, jeopardizing the freedom and dynamism of the World Wide Web. Lawmakers need to try again with a narrower approach.
The fight has been dubbed Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley. Hollywood enlisted big lobbying guns to get its favored bills through Congress, but once the Internet community fully engaged last week, it brought overwhelming numbers. Congressional offices were inundated with constituent calls and emails opposing the Stop Online Privacy Act in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia went dark on Wednesday in protest, and the Web giant Google marked the day by covering its iconic name with a black bar — as if it had been redacted by a censor. It didn't take long for the broad bipartisan support the bills had enjoyed to peel away, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio leading the way. Rubio used his Facebook page to renounce the bill he had co-sponsored.
A chief criticism is that the proposals gave the government and content creators the ability to tell Internet service providers, search engines and others to block access to websites suspected of pirating copyrighted material. In the initial drafts, the Justice Department and copyright holders had the power to obtain a court order based on merely an accusation of piracy. Opponents raised the specter of censorship, since some copyrighted material falls within rules for fair use and can be legitimately posted. The bills would also force Internet service providers, online advertisers and credit card companies to cut off payments to alleged violators.
The legislation targets foreign sites dedicated to the theft of U.S. property, but domestic sites worry that they could be easily drawn in if they link to a blocked site. Because the bills gave copyright holders the right to sue ISPs, search engines, online advertisers and credit card companies, critics charged that mere threat to sue would be enough to block content. Social networking sites, where people post a daily flood of material and links, say it would be impossible to police all that content.
Congress has heard the complaints, and support for the bills has been shrinking even as sponsors scramble to rewrite key portions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed a cloture vote set for Tuesday after it became clear that the bill might not have the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster. The sponsors are right that more tools are needed to combat counterfeiting and intellectual property theft, but the approach proposed so far doesn't do enough to protect freedom.