The Agenda

Larry Downes on SOPA

Larry Downes, one of my favorite tech policy thinkers, describes the new Stop Online Piracy Act as “Hollywood’s latest effort to turn back time.”

Despite the assurances of its supporters, SOPA may represent the most intrusive and dangerous effort yet to micromanage Internet infrastructure and services. A wide range of technology-oriented advocacy groups were quick to cry foul. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in its initial review of the bill, determined the legislation would cause irreparable harm. “This bill cannot be fixed,” the organization wrote on its Web site; “it must be killed.”

The Center for Democracy and Technology’s David Sohn, similarly, called out the bill’s broad and vague new standards for “facilitating” copyright and trademark infringement.

He argues that SOPA effectively introduces new monitoring requirements for all websites that allow user content, even comments posted to blogs. Rightsholders, Sohn wrote, need only “a good faith belief that a Web site is ‘avoiding confirming’ infringement, and they can demand that payment systems and advertising networks cease doing business with the Web site.”

And Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, pulled no punches in an article Monday calling for rejection of both the House and Senate bills. “The Protect IP Act and SOPA will do plenty of harm,” he wrote, “without providing any real assurance that they will stem the flow of digital piracy.”

Ultimately, how you come down on SOPA depends on how you come down on the question whether you trust relatively closed and stagnant Hollywood to determine the future of the Internet or the relatively open and entrepreneurial technology sector. As Downes makes clear, Hollywood has darkly warned against a number of innovative technologies of the last three decades and there is no reason to believe that they’ll stop any time soon. The difference is that they’re fighting harder than the technology sector:

Whatever the ultimate fate of SOPA, the bill’s introduction may at last awaken Silicon Valley from its regulatory slumbers. That change could not come too soon. The bill’s 79 pages of legalese do little to disguise its real agenda–to give Hollywood the kind of control over the Internet it has tried and failed to assert over every new media technology since the invention of the player piano.

Let’s be clear: SOPA is not the first and will certainly not be the last effort by Hollywood to stage a regulatory coup. At its core, the bill demonstrates once again that content providers have still not come to terms with the reality of the Internet–the latest innovation to upset traditional business models.

While Hollywood has taken baby steps to embrace the potential of the digital revolution, very little has changed since 1982, when MPAA President Jack Valenti famously testified that the invention of the VCR was “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

We have a problem. The MPAA and the RIAA have considerable influence over both political parties, though of course they’re particularly close to the Democrats. It baffles me that Republicans and conservatives have failed to recognize this dynamic. The GOP should be the party of free and open markets in media and culture. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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