Dodging a bullet

Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the decision to postpone a scheduled Tuesday vote on the Protect I.P. Act (PIPA) reluctantly, he still did the right thing.

That bill, and its House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), were the very definition of not ready for prime time.

Both bills sought to address what most everybody admits is a legitimate issue, the pirating of U.S. intellectual property by mostly foreign companies via the Internet. Movies, books and music are ripped off regularly. And while the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows the owners of copyrights to sue to enforce the rules, Hollywood and the recording industry wanted more.

A lot more, as it turns out.

Although sponsors indicated a willingness to amend the legislation, the bills would have allowed the Justice Department or copyright owners to get a court order to block offending websites. That would have required (in the House version) government orders to Internet service providers to deny Americans access to those sites. In the Senate version, action could be initiated to block Internet domain names of offending pirate sites.

The online community objected vigorously to both SOPA and PIPA, staging protests, collecting electronic petition signatures against them and — last week — shutting down certain websites to protest the bills.

They got their way: The House won’t draft SOPA next month as scheduled, and Reid’s Tuesday cloture vote on PIPA was indefinitely postponed. Lobbyists and congressional staffers told The New York Times that action was not likely on either bill for the rest of the year, thanks to the election.

On Thursday, all the Republican candidates for president disparaged SOPA and PIPA, although Rick Santorum did throw a bone, noting that American jobs are imperiled when pirated works are sold. That’s the argument advanced by groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America, now headed by former Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd.

And while Republican candidates — this time it was Newt Gingrich — often disparage Hollywood, it’s among America’s most successful business sectors. Hollywood still dominates the world in producing entertainment, and how many other American job sectors can say that? The fact that this is an expensive problem testifies to American success.

That’s not to say, however, that we should empower anyone — especially the U.S. government — with anything approaching the power of censorship over anything; that is always bad. (Government lawyers arguing the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case should have known they were sunk when they admitted under questioning that banning books was permissible under the law.)

In fact, and with apologies to Bill Maher, let’s consider a new rule: If what you’re advocating allows anybody to censor anything, you’re on the wrong side.

So, how do we stop online piracy? Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have an alternative plan that would allow the International Trade Commission to police violations and block the use of credit cards to purchase suspect materials. Lawsuits to remove offending content are still possible under existing law. And while both approaches have their drawbacks, they don’t do violence to the fundamental character of the Internet, which is the free and open exchange of information.

Despite the setback, Reid still had hopes for the bill. In a statement, he said, “I encourage (sponsor U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) to continue engaging with all stakeholders to forge a balance between protecting Americans’ intellectual property, and maintaining the openness and innovation on the Internet.”

In other words, this is not the final chapter, and people who care about Internet freedom must remain vigilant.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and editor of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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