House stages cheerleading session for Internet censorship bill

By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 16:55 EDT
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Pro-piracy artwork. Photo: Flickr user altemark.
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A bill that would allow corporations and the U.S. government to create and maintain a massive blacklist of websites accused of copyright infringement got its first serious hearing before a House committee today, but it turned out to be little more than a cheerleading session for sponsors of the legislation.

As the most ardent supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) lined up before members of the House Judiciary Committee to offer their best defenses of the much-maligned bill, virtually all others angling to speak against it were locked out of the hearing, according to the privacy and free speech advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

SOPA is essentially a rebranding of the Protect IP Act, heavily supported by entertainment industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They unanimously claim it would protect American jobs by shutting down online media piracy, which they blame for declining sales.

But its detractors, companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Aol, see SOPA a little differently. While SOPA would make it easier for U.S. authorities to crack down on websites accused of pirating movies, television shows and music, it would also allow the government and copyright owners to disable credit card processing for sites they claim are engaging or enabling copyright infringement.

The only detractor allowed to speak during Wednesday’s congressional hearing was Google — and instead of championing free speech, their lead counsel on copyright policy instead recommended the model of censorship that anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks is currently experiencing: a voluntary banking blockade, instead of one mandated by law. Privacy advocates, free speech advocates, technology advocates and even other Internet industry groups were left without a voice at the hearing.

“The key problem with SOPA is that it seeks to allow any copyright holder to sever any website’s relationship with online advertising networks or credit card processing services, simply by pointing the finger,” technology publication First Post explained.

The legislation is so broad it could be used to target online anonymity tools used by human rights activists, according to the EFF. The software Tor, for instance, which has been used to protect activists in Tunisia and Egypt, could be targeted because it can be used to hide one’s IP address when illegally downloading copyrighted content.

Corporations could also use SOPA claims to force companies to stop processing donations to whistleblower sites like WikiLeaks that post documents protected by copyright or containing trade secrets. The bill would additionally require Internet service providers to “take technically feasible and reasonable measures” to block “rogue” sites from their customers.

The other problem with SOPA: it’s virtually guaranteed to fail, making Wednesday’s House Judiciary hearing essentially irrelevant. Even if it clears the House, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has placed holds on the last two Internet censorship bills taken up by the Senate, and insists he’ll kill the next one too.

“I understand and agree with the goal of the legislation, to protect intellectual property and combat commerce in counterfeit goods, but I am not willing to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth to achieve this objective,” Wyden explained, referring to the Protect IP Act. “At the expense of legitimate commerce, [Protect IP's] prescription takes an overreaching approach to policing the Internet when a more balanced and targeted approach would be more effective. The collateral damage of this approach is speech, innovation and the very integrity of the Internet.”

With prior reporting by Eric W. Dolan.

Photo: Flickr user altemark.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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