By Charlie Warzel / @cwarzel
Blackouts, markups, wordy 71 page bills, acronyms. SOPA, PIPA, OPEN Act. What the hell is going on over here? Where do we stand?
If you’re reading this now and want to look up some of these terms, you won’t be able to look them up on Wikipedia or jaw about the bill on Reddit–the sites are currently ‘blacked out’ in protest of the anti-piracy legislation currently rippling through Washington and internet communities across the globe. Right now there are at least 85 registered sites going dark in opposition of SOPA and urging users to call their representatives. If Tumblr’s blackout last November is any indication, this very well may melt the switchboards down on Capitol Hill. Go ahead, look it up on Google. Chances are before you even enter in your search keywords you’ll notice Google’s logo is blacked out and see a link warning of SOPA/PIPA’s dangers.
Yeah, it’s that big a deal.
The SOPA/PIPA debate is so expansive that news surrounding the legislation seems to break hourly. BostInno and InTheCapital have teamed up to ensure that you stay current as this all unfolds.
HERE’S WHERE WE STAND
Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), the bill introduced in the House in October by Texas Congressman, Rep. Lamar Smith, (you can read the whole thing online here) looks to expand the powers of the Federal government to fight online piracy. Similary, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) is the corresponding bill introduced in the Senate last May by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). At first glance the bills sound innocuous enough. Stop intellectual property theft and piracy online. Who wouldn’t be onboard?
Rep. Smith (R-TX) and Sen. Leahy (D-VT) via AP
As always, the devil is in the details, which in Congress means the devil is buried in pages upon pages of wonky verbiage and excruciating jargon. Thankfully though, internet mavens like Boston Based investor, Bijan Sabet spoke up, and did so loudly.
“This very small group of special interests are really trying to take over the web and it has massive implications,” Sabet told BostInno via telephone. “It’s trying to allow one special interest group to have this unprecedented level of control over how information and communication works…sites like Wikipedia and YouTube could be taken down if you had one rogue user, the list goes on and on.”
It’s safe to say Sabet knows his stuff–he led Spark Capital’s investments in Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr, and has served on the boards of some of the most prominent tech companies around–and what he sees in the legislation disturbs him deeply. To illustrate, Sabet drew us a comparison to a situation in which phone companies would be on the hook for the wrong-doings of an individual phone user.
“If I do something illegal using a telephone, the authorities have every right to come after me for doing something bad, like if I’m selling illegal products or doing something that’s against the law. As an individual I’m accountable for my actions, but the phone company can’t be shut down because you have one bad apple using the phone, let’s say, to sell pirated music or something like that. What SOPA is trying to do is basically take this very heavy-handed approach to user generated sites that would be in effect just like that example I shared, let’s say, going after AT&T for one rogue user. ”
Harvard Professor of Constitutional Law, Laurence Tribe noted the bills’ unconstitutionality on BostInno as well, citing that “its stiff penalties would pose a significant risk to legitimate websites and services. It would undermine the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet. And it would violate the First Amendment.”
Bijan Sabet via Spark Capital
Worse yet, Sabet warns that the bill creates dangerous opportunities for censorship without really addressing the core issue of privacy. ”Most of the piracy out there is based on companies that are not in the United States. The vast majority of where illegal music downloads happen is — these sites are not in the U.S. Pirate Bay is not a US company, Kazaa is not a US company. It’s kind of funny that they’re putting laws in place or they’re trying to put laws in place that regulate US companies and US companies are not the infringers,” Bijan told us.
Sabet happens to be in good company when it comes to these concerns. Also a vocal opponent of SOPA/PIPA legislation, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has made a name for himself in the tech community as an advocate for a free internet. Issa has gone so far as to propose an alternative to the legislation, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), which is co-sponsored in the Senate by Ron Wyden (D-OR). OPEN looks to address concerns like Bijan’s, stopping money from flowing to foreign sites that pirate copyrighted software, movies, and other intellectual property. According to a great article by Ars Technica, “the proposed legislation would make copyright and trademark enforcement an issue for the US International Trade Commission rather than the federal court system.” Rep. Issa said yesterday during a live event broadcast by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee that he expects to have more cosigners in the House for OPEN than are currently in SOPA.
Okay, so that is admittedly a lot to take in. Here’s some cliff notes: There are three Bills. SOPA (house), PIPA (senate), and OPEN (both). [Below we’ve included a handy chart comparing the bills]
Rep. Smith plans to bring SOPA back up in the House in Feburary, while PIPA is slated for discussion on January 24th. Rep. Issa is planning to introduce OPEN officially any time now.
HERE’S WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
Simply put, don’t mess with the internet. If there is one salient thing to be gleaned from this overwhelming global event it is certainly that. You don’t mess with the internet.
Mr. Sabet told us that the legislation caught him and most internet users by surprise, asserting, “they tried to shove this bill through the process and the internet woke up and said ‘this is wrong!’ And now people are speaking up in a way that I’m excited about, but it’s going to be a really hard fight. Unfortunately there’s a lot of momentum on the other side to push something that looks something like SOPA through.”
Turns out the momentum is now gaining on the side of the internet. Marci Harris, CEO of PopVox, a non-partisan Washington-based website that helps constituents weigh in on congressional legislation, has seen a great deal of outrage on the site over the past few months and senses a trend. “I think this is a sea change. SOPA is evidence of what is happening. There are always two ways to implant legislation. You can lose money or you can lose people. Before you could always count money, but now you can count the people…there is a different level of transparency when you can identify something like that.”
The adamant backlash seen online is born out of a recognition that a serious disconnect exists between lawmakers and ‘actual internet users’. Sabet counts himself as one stunned by what he calls, “the lack of knowledge among some of the members about how the web works and what the language of the bill represents.” He says there is now ”a situation where you have clearly a few elected members who are deeply supported by the Hollywood community, so they did not have an open mind, and then you had people who didn’t understand the way the bill was drafted, they didn’t understand the implications of it, they don’t understand how the web works and they could not articulate what’s wrong with DMCA, the current law of the land, that everyone has been abiding by.”
We spoke to a House democratic staffer close to the legislation who also echoed similar words. While he wished to not be identified by name or Representative, he told us, “there is definitely a disconnect here. There were a lot of members and staff who don’t understand intricacies of the internet…when you have engineers and the pioneers of the internet saying this is a problem and when members of the bill don’t take that seriously you see that minds have been made up no matter what arguments are made.” To illustrate this point just last week, Vice.com published a story showing that Rep. Lamar Smith’s own website is in violation of the SOPA legislation.
Yesterday, Jayme White, Staff Director, Senate Finance Subcommittee on International Trade, too urged that the SOPA argument only serves to highlight a greater problem in Congress telling Congressional interns, “if you look at the legislation it shows proof that the system is broken.”
Responding to the outpouring from the internet community, the White House even felt compelled to issue a statement critical of the anti-piracy legislation and affirming the Executive branch would not be in favor of any bill that “reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risks or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.“
WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT
Reddit Co-Founder, Alexis Ohanian Testifies Before Congress via Portfolio.com
Yesterday, Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian spoke to an online audience via video chat and brought the argument down to it’s most relatable terms. “The world is not flat, but the world wide web is…there is no other industry in the world where you can take an investment that’s less than the cost of a Ford Focus, give it to some college students and create a $1 billion business.” He added that SOPA is “taking an already loaded gun and making it a nuclear warhead and that is something that I cannot abide by.”
While supporters of SOPA, like Rupert Murdoch (who has issued a series of acerbic tweets on the matter), argue today’s ‘blackout protests’ are a simple gimmick, the reasoning behind them is anything but gimmicky and there is a great deal at stake, economically.
Bijan told us during our call that, “One of the reasons all this stuff [innovation on the web] has happened and the reason that there’s been so much innovation in the social space is because there are no gatekeepers. You can have a company that has thousands of employees and it has built one of the most valuable companies in the world because they have not had to deal with gatekeepers, and if these companies can be shut down because of one rogue user it’s going to be less attractive to entrepreneurs, less attractive to venture capitalists, I don’t think you could have started a number of these sites if bills like SOPA were the law of the land.”
Lawmakers should do their best to heed Mr. Sabet’s words. At a time when the economy remains as fragile as ever, censoring the internet could have dire consequences and effect economic health and job creation in all sectors, not just tech. Perhaps Lamar Smith should consult the May 2011 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which had some choice observations on the internet’s effect on economic health:
“The Internet accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth over the last five years among the developed countries MGI studied, a sharp acceleration from the 10 percent contribution over 15 years. Most of the economic value created by the Internet falls outside of the technology sector, with 75 percent of the benefits captured by companies in more traditional industries. The Internet is also a catalyst for job creation. Among 4,800 small and medium-size enterprises surveyed, the Internet created 2.6 jobs for each lost to technology-related efficiencies.”
BostInno and InTheCapital have chosen to join in support of a free internet. As supporters and chroniclers of innovation and as conscious American citizens, we believe a free internet is crucial to the development of a healthy America and positive change throughout the world.