(An edited version of the following ran as an op-ed in The Tennessean Sunday Dec. 18, 2011, opposite a piece by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and alongside an editorial by The Tennessean's Ted Rayburn)
By Gary Moore
If you were alarmed when you saw SWAT teams ridding public parks of the First Amendment in the form of "Occupy Wall Street," you will be sick when your Internet is blocked after a powerful Congress-Corporate SWAT team clears cyber space of the First Amendment.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was argued last week in a two-day markup session of the House Judiciary Committee. Rather than being "marked up," the bill should be shredded. The bill might better be called the "Shut Off Practically Anyone" Act or the "Stop Online Privacy Act." A counterpart bill is in the Senate.
The stated intent of the legislation, which is being pushed by the motion picture and music industries, is to supersede existing laws that protect copyright holders from those who would illegally sell movies and songs over the Internet.
Unfortunately, the bills are so broadly written that they swing a medieval ax that chops down the First (free speech), Fourth (privacy) and Fifth (due process) Amendments. Under the House bill a copyright holder could go to court and, without a hearing, get the government to block web sites, even over materials put there by a third party, like users posting to Facebook. The burden could be on YouTube to monitor its about 24,000 postings an hour for such things as kids singing a Beatles song.
The bill further provides for cutting off credit card and PayPal payments to allegedly offending sites. What would that mean to eBay? And, the bill knocks down the privacy door as it allows snooping on what users write, read and seek.
Opposition to the bill is more grassroots and can afford fewer lobbyists. It ranges from venture capitalists to technology interests to First Amendment lawyers.
"Our State Department can't push for Internet freedom abroad if we pass SOPA at home," said committee member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
Authoritarian regimes are intently watching this bill, which they view as a free pass from the U.S. to engage in censorship, spying and electronic revolt-crushing. The technology prescribed by SOPA is substantially the same that China uses to enforce the Great Internet Firewall of China.
Investors fear the broad liability cast by these bills would stifle the robust economic force of the Internet. Future Facebooks would stay in the dorm room, and future Googles might not get out of the garage.
Judiciary committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is pushing his bill as if it were a Christmas gift for corporate sponsors. The movie/TV/music industry is Smith's top campaign contributor by industry rank, just as it is of the bill's other principal sponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Not surprisingly, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN 7th district) has signed on as a co-sponsor.
Further entwining the Corporate-Congress marriage is the fact that former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd now serves as CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and he recently hired a Congressional staffer who had worked on the bill. Imagine this on a resume: "I helped the United States pass new laws to benefit you at the expense of the public interest."
The Internet is the last level playing field, where there is equal opportunity to post and search, even if you are a budding entrepreneur or a dissenting political voice. The spirit of the Internet must prevail in America against the narrow interests that would throttle it.
Gary Moore is public information director of Citizens for a Free and Open Internet PAC.