Over the past few weeks, one of the big stories on online news sites has been the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act. The House bill would empower the Justice Department to essentially blacklist websites that violate intellectual-property laws; it would also allow private companies to sue sites and service providers for knowingly hosting user-generated content that infringes on copyrights. There’s a reasonable debate to be had over whether SOPA and its Senate companion, the Protect IP Act, represent needed reforms or Draconian regulatory overreach. But the Internet giants and web commentators leading the opposition don’t have to settle for a fair fight. They can, and have, framed the bill as the worst thing to hit the congressional docket since the Fugitive Slave Act—and the bigger issue emerging here is why they’re able to get away with it.
Really, SOPA is just an old-fashioned Washington battle between two entrenched corporate camps: the entertainment companies that don’t want their output ripped off, and the web companies that don’t want to be saddled with increased compliance costs. But the bill’s online critics spin it as privileging the entertainment industry not just over the Internet but also over the common good itself. With the debate playing out largely on their turf, Netizens have been hammering home this point, with November 16 declared “American Censorship Day” as numerous sites plastered STOP CENSORSHIP over their logos or, in the case of Tumblr, blacked out content altogether. In a widely watched Vimeo video from the anti-SOPA group Fight for the Future, the narrator puts the stakes this way: “Hollywood movies don’t get grassroots candidates elected, they don’t overthrow corrupt regimes, and the entire entertainment industry doesn’t even contribute that much to our economy. The Internet does all these and more.”
The casting of SOPA as the effective enemy of future Arab Springs has carried over to the offline world, too. On “American Censorship Day,” the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that SOPA would “inflict collateral damage on democratic discourse and dissent both at home and around the world.” The piece was by Rebecca MacKinnon, whose author bio identified her as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. What it didn’t disclose is that the chairman of New America’s board is Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt who, together with his company, has given the think tank $1.7 million over the last three years. Does that mean Google bought MacKinnon’s opposition to SOPA? No. But it’s hard to imagine the Times publishing an op-ed from, say, a critic of climate-change legislation whose think tank receives money from Exxon. While the cognoscenti are quick to suspect old-line companies of executing a hidden agenda to tilt public discourse and legislation toward their own bottom lines, web giants—especially ones that espouse the philosophy “Don’t be evil”—continue to be regarded as enlightened revolutionaries, and given the benefit of the doubt. It’s an advantage those web companies cannily exploit.
The problem that SOPA seeks to solve is that under current law, sites like YouTube and Facebook have no incentive to stop users from uploading pirated content; so long as the sites remove it when asked, they’re legally in the clear. “As a social phenomenon, YouTube is fantastic,” says Robert Levine, whose recent book Free Ride tells the story of the copyright wars. “But if you look at YouTube as a business, it was to a large extent based on copyright infringement.” Google, no doubt, was looking at YouTube as a business when it paid $1.65 billion to buy it. The rest of us might want to start looking at it that way, too.