The Watershed Post's take on SOPA and PIPA

Today, a wide swath of the Internet and web tech community is joining a digital protest of a pair of bills currently under consideration by Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.

The bills are intended to combat piracy and illegal downloading, by giving the U.S. Attorney General a variety of tools for combating foreign websites that host pirated content, including the power to disable access to the sites by blocking their domain names.

But the bills also contain far-reaching language that imposes new legal requirements and liabilities on domestic websites -- including sites not accused of piracy, which could face enforcement action simply by linking to offending sites. From a New York Times story published today about the bills:

Under the proposed legislation, if a copyright holder like Warner Brothers discovers that a foreign site is focused on offering illegal copies of songs or movies, it could seek a court order that would require search engines like Google to remove links to the site and require advertising companies to cut off payments to it.

Internet companies fear that because the definitions of terms like “search engine” are so broad in the legislation, Web sites big and small could be responsible for monitoring all material on their pages for potential violations — an expensive and complex challenge.

Websites that rely mainly on user-generated content, including social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as popular content-hosting sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr, also face potential harm from SOPA and PIPA. The bills would grant the US government the power to block an entire site based on the actions of a few users.

From a recent op-ed in Slate, by two members of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative:

Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.

Lawyer Marvin Ammori, who represents several tech companies that oppose the bills, argues that although the bills claim to target foreign copyright infringers, they will inflict collateral damage on American web companies and curtail American free speech.

The news website ProPublica is currently tracking support for SOPA and PIPA in the House and the Senate. Both New York State Senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, support the Senate bill. In the House, Democrat Bill Owens (NY-23) and Republican Pete King (NY-3) support SOPA. The positions of the other 27 New York State members of the House are still unknown.

As news-gatherers, content creators, link-aggregators and web publishers, we at the Watershed Post have a clear interest in the fate of SOPA and PIPA, and in Internet and intellectual property law in the US generally. (While we're on the topic of full disclosure: I also have a stake in this issue as part-owner of a family-owned small Internet Service Provider, the Margaretville Telephone Company.)

It's not often that we pick sides in public debates. That's not our job. We're news reporters; it's our job to deliver the facts, and represent the diverse opinions of the community we serve, without injecting our own agenda.

But this issue is intimately bound up with what we do every day, and with the fast-evolving digital ecosystem that the Watershed Post must navigate skillfully in order to survive. And so I'm responding, not as a reporter, but as someone who has an enormous personal stake in the future of the Internet, and who has watched my local community be transformed in ways I never could have forseen by the flowering of open digital communication.

Here's why I'm opposed to SOPA and PIPA:

-Punishing sites merely for providing links to information strikes at the heart of both the structure and the culture of the Internet. To think that Congress can do this without having a profound impact on how we all use the Internet is to misunderstand how the Internet works.

For instance: In this post alone, I've linked to over a dozen websites, over whose content I have no control. Some are private companies. Some are news websites. Some host user-generated content. Some (for instance, Google) have been the target of lawsuits and law enforcement action for the content they provide.

Would the passage of SOPA and PIPA mean that websites like ours could face legal action for linking to other websites the Attorney General deems unsavory? The International Business Times thinks so.

-Facing total shutdown simply for linking to a website -- or for the illegal actions of a few of your thousands or millions of users -- is a risk no web publisher wants to take. In a legal framework where this is a real possibility, there will be fewer web publishers, and far less venture capital to get them off the ground.

-The Watershed Post, like many digital publishers, depends on a deep ecosystem of websites and digital publishing tools. Some are free, some have user fees, some are open-source, some use proprietary code. What they all have in common is that they give ordinary people -- people who don't code Java and C++ in their sleep -- more power to share and organize information.

Individually, they are potent tools. Collectively, they are bringing about a kind of global renaissance in information-sharing, of which pirated content is only a small (and regrettable) fraction.

Here are a few of the websites and services we rely on frequently: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Scribd, Google search and tools, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Wordpress, DocumentCloud.

You'll see SOPA/PIPA protest banners on many of those websites today. If similar legislation had been passed a decade ago, those websites might not exist today -- and quite possibly, neither would we.