Putting a Lid on the Internet Soup

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Old Media, the Wild Web and the Meaning of “Free”

After Google, Wikipedia, and tens of thousands of other websites protested the proposed Protect IP and Stop Online Privacy acts (PIPA and SOPA, respectively), Brian Greenspun, a Las Vegas newspaper publisher, responded by pointing out that the Internet is not free. His column in the Jan. 22 Las Vegas Sun does not specify whether he means “free as in beer” or “free as in freedom,” but his comments suggest he means free as in beer. Which means he starts his argument by completely missing the larger point.

The Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were crafted to make it easier to combat Internet piracy, but as the bills wended their way through Congress in recent weeks, many in the Internet community—from giants such as Google to dorm-room startups—have seen them as a threat to the very essence of the Internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued that the proposed laws would shift too much of the burden of policing onto websites that host millions of exchanges of user-generated information a day. This would be prohibitively expensive for large sites and nearly impossible for small sites. For many Internet entrepreneurs, the only rational response would be simply to get out of the business of accommodating user content.

To use a local example, one of Las Vegas’ promising downtown startups, Rumgr, enables people to sell items online. Under SOPA, the site could be completely shut down if users posted pirated items for sale and Rumgr’s owners weren’t aggressive enough about locating and removing them—even if no one else had informed them about the offending items. Under current laws, Rumgr would only get in trouble if it refused to remove specific infringing items after the copyright owner pointed them out.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., supported PIPA and SOPA, and up until last week it looked like once a few differences got ironed out the bills would quietly pass. But on Jan. 18, tens of thousands of websites staged a “blackout” to protest the bills.

After this Internet strike, dozens of legislators quickly declared their opposition to the bills (including seven former co-sponsors), as did all four Republican presidential candidates. Then Reid postponed an upcoming vote on PIPA, effectively shelving the legislation, and SOPA was put on hold later the same day.

Another development, which has gotten surprisingly little coverage, is that on the day of the blackout, a Republican and a Democrat simultaneously introduced into the House and Senate a new bill designed to attack the same problem from a different angle—by encouraging public involvement. The Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) would authorize the International Trade Commission to investigate charges of infringement, and would only punish “willfully” infringing sites.

In addition, the OPEN website, KeepTheWebOpen.com, encourages public comment to improve the bill, and also has the entire text of PIPA and SOPA. Opponents have already criticized OPEN for being soft on pirates, but they have the opportunity to post suggestions on the OPEN website. If this open creation of OPEN works, it could provide not only a new approach to battling piracy but a new way of engaging the public in the legislative process.