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Wikipedia protests SOPA, Jan. 18, 2011

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Two bills intended to help combat the online theft of intellectual property have stalled in Congress after Internet giants Google and Wikipedia protested and legislative sponsors reconsidered their support. Some Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan, had opposed the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, and Rep. Eric Cantor saw to it that the bill was tabled. Conservative favorite Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida withdrew his support from the Senate’s companion legislation, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, and other sponsors subsequently withdrew.

A great deal of hysteria attended the discussion of these bills, and their scope and reach were grossly exaggerated. But the bills are nonetheless defective pieces of legislation, and conservatives are right to oppose them.

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All conservatives believe in protecting property rights, and most conservatives support the protection of copyright as an extension of that principle. But this is not mainly a question of high principle; it is, rather, a dispute between two competing sets of corporate interests: Hollywood and other content providers seeking to protect their copyrighted materials, and Internet firms seeking to protect their interest in a Web that remains largely free of government supervision. We favor an Internet that is largely free of regulation and taxes; we also favor observing the Eighth Commandment.

While there are a few crusaders against the very idea of intellectual property, there are few questions of principle at stake here, most reasonable people having long ago made up their minds about property rights (generally for) and censorship (generally against). The issues raised by SOPA and PIPA are largely procedural and technological, which is why it is wise to set the legislation aside and begin the process of mediating between the two parties.

It is doubtful that either SOPA or PIPA would have done much to slow down online pirates, any more than a stack of legislation would slow down spam e-mails or enticing offers from fictitious Nigerian financial officials. SOPA and PIPA would have allowed the government to require search engines, Internet service providers, online-advertising networks, and the like to block access to sites designated as being mainly involved in the criminal activity of distributing pirated material. Websites facing such complaints would have a process to appeal their designation, though the worst offenders would of course have no incentive to do so, their guilt being plain and undeniable. Instead, the full-time pirates would have a very strong incentive to simply switch to another website, or to a proliferation of websites, or to deploy any number of commonly available technological solutions to defeat government attempts to block them. Here should implies can, and can is doubtful.

Judging by the fact that pirated DVDs are openly for sale in practically every city of any consequence in these United States, we have our doubts about the police authorities’ seriousness in these matters. Policing pirate websites, many of which are located in foreign jurisdictions (or in unknown jurisdictions), is very hard work, and expensive. SOPA and PIPA would relieve the police authorities of these burdens by conscripting Internet firms to act as proxy police. We are in general skeptical of government efforts to foist off difficult tasks onto businesses and other private parties, who already are expected to act as tax collectors (especially of sales taxes), immigration inspectors, and more.

While too much was made of this legislation’s potential for abuse, the potential, though modest, is real, as it is with all police powers. We strongly prefer to keep Washington’s 535 legislative noses and their countless bureaucratic counterparts out of the Internet. In this case, the cost-benefit analysis weighs against SOPA and PIPA, given the scanty benefits we might expect to realize from such legislation. It would be far better to continue to work on technological solutions and to continue the frustrating and thankless chore of pressuring and cajoling our dear friends around the world into deploying their traditional police powers against the worst of the intellectual-property pirates. The main obstacle to the latter is that in many countries (hello, China!) the police and the pirates are the same people, in which case more creative solutions are going to be needed.



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