US must tread lightly on Internet regs

At one point a few days ago it looked as if the House and Senate were going to put stringent new limits on the freedom of the Internet. The decision to stop their rush to judgment was a big win for all Americans.

The House Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) were rightly designed to stop counterfeiting and piracy on the Internet.

But any experienced legislator will tell you that a vote for a new bill is always accompanied by worry about unintended consequences.

You want to accomplish A and B. But is there something in the bill that might also allow C and D to happen? Both SOPA and PIPA were full of unintended consequences.

There is no question that piracy and counterfeiting on the Internet cost American businesses billions of dollars. Thousands of jobs are lost. We must protect intellectual property because stealing a book, a movie or a song without fair payment to its creator is exactly the same as shoplifting or robbing a bank.

Theft is theft.

There is no free lunch. If we do not protect the creators of our movies, games, music, and literature, the products they create will surely disappear.

Some very powerful Washington interest groups were defeated when votes on the bills were suspended.

Coming on the heels of the successful Internet uprising against Bank of America’s proposed $5 monthly fee for debit card users, the suspension sent another loud message that the rest of us have a way to make our voices heard.

Initially, concern about Internet counterfeiting and piracy looked like just another battle about money, with Hollywood studios, the recording industry, and book publishers on one side and Google, Facebook, and most of Silicon Valley on the other. This kind of thing happens all the time, not just in Washington but in state capitols and local councils. The moneyed interests line up on both sides, and employ well-paid advocates to argue their cases. Buckets of money go to the winners, but seldom do average people who will be affected by the results get a chance to exert much influence. Fortunately, in this case, the issues were so major that the media brought them out of the legislative back rooms and into the sunshine where all of us could see what was going on.

What became evident was that this was not just a battle over money. It was most profoundly about freedom of speech.

It has always amazed me how we Americans take freedom of speech for granted. I spent thirteen years on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, appointed by Presidents Clinton and Bush, The Board oversees all non-military U.S. government broadcasting abroad, including the Voice of America.

I saw time and again how governments around the world frustrate freedom of speech and freedom of the press. There are still countries that throw dissidents in jail and close media outlets. But more often, governments use more nuanced methods.

They enact laws to define who can be a journalist and what constitutes libel, and control what is permitted on the Internet.
The existing SOPA and PIPA bills would have made it easy for businesses to limit speech with no prior notice or judicial hearing. They could have shut down websites by filing a notice alleging the site was “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” Perhaps some web pages should be closed, but this is a very slippery slope. Maintaining real freedom of speech on the Internet must be our paramount concern.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa have introduced a new bill, the Online Protection and Enforcement Trade Act (commonly called the “Open Act.”). It appears to balance commercial needs with better protections of freedom of speech, and is supported by the major Internet companies.

We need to limit counterfeiting and piracy, and protect intellectual property, while at the same time ensuring that the Internet continues to be a bastion of the free speech rights.

Originally published 28 Jan 2012 on