Certainly Internet piracy harms American businesses, particularly the creators and distributors of art and culture. SOPA and PIPA aim to curb this piracy, specifically as it is enabled by foreign websites. As Hatto notes, “The West’s most vital weapon is its culture,” and the culture we export is in large part enabled by big media companies (like movie studios). But as we endeavor to protect intellectual property, it’s essential that we don’t shut off the most vital conduits of 21st century free speech and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Specifically, we need to resist attempts to break the long-established “common carriers” principle, which holds that carriers of information aren’t legally responsible for illegal content streamed through their “pipes.” Verizon isn’t responsible if terrorists use mobile phones to plan an attack, any more than GM is responsible if a bank robber uses a Chevy as a getaway car. Internet service providers are common carriers in the same sense, and by the next logical step, so are the websites, forums, and networks that are open to contributions of content from all citizens.
The proposed measures would enable the almost-summary shutdown of an entire site simply because someone claims to have a “reasonable belief” that some part of that site enables copyright infringement. They’d be using the proverbial elephant gun to shoot the proverbial squirrel.
The tricky thing is that these entities are a new species, neither elephants nor squirrels, a kind of hybrid. They are media, but with limited (or no) firm editorial control. There’s no easy solution to online piracy.
But we need to find a way, as PIPA sponsors Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand said in a conciliatory statement today, to “ensure a proper balance between stopping the theft of intellectual property and copyright infringement, and doing so without the unintended consequence of stifling or censoring the internet.”