What do the MPAA, the RIAA, the U.S. Congress, and the
perennially human-rights-challenged Thai government have in common? A similar taste in misguided
regulations with draconian flair.
In Thailand, the Computer Crimes Act holds a website
operator responsible for any content posted on his or her website. The country also has strict lèse
majesté laws that make it a crime to criticize the Thai monarchy. So when anonymous users posted comments
deemed offensive to the Thai monarch on Chiranuch
Premchaiporn’s website, and according to the Thai government, Ms.
Premchaiporn did not remove the offending comments quickly enough, she became
liable for the content. She now
faces 70 years in prison.
The U.S. government, a strong advocate of Internet freedom
abroad, is now following Thailand’s lead at home. The Stop Online
Piracy Act (SOPA), is quickly making its way through Congress. Similar to the Computer Crimes Act, SOPA
would hold websites liable if they took “deliberate actions to avoid confirming
a high probability” that content on the website does not infringe on the
intellectual property rights of others.
This includes user-generated content and the content of sites it links
to. With its unclear language and
overbroad reach, this legislation can easily create a de facto pre-screening
and censorship regime that could put sites like YouTube and Twitter out of
business, or at the very least, drastically increase their legal costs. But the real concern should be the next
YouTubes, Twitters or Vimeos that do not have legal departments.
The issue is further complicated by the big content
companies’ draconian interpretation of the underlying copyright law. Now, merely posting
a video of your baby dancing on YouTube with a song playing in the
background may get you in trouble with the recording industry. And because the law offers immunity to
companies who make an effort to comply with this vague legislation, websites
will be encouraged to apply filtering and censorship broadly, ultimately
censoring legal content just to be on the safe side. And for those
who do not think that this legislation will be abused, remember, these are the
same guys who likened the VCR
to the Boston Strangler and said that there is no
value to works in the public domain (Shakespeare?).
Certainly, Internet piracy is something that should be
targeted, but certain stakeholders, at least according to the Government
Accountability Office, inflate piracy statistics and exaggerate
how badly they are doing to encourage sweeping legislation that really threatens
our economy. The provisions in
SOPA that prevent financial companies and advertising operators from doing
business with infringing sites can effectively eliminate most major websites
dedicated to infringement. This
approach was able
to shut down Wikileaks. But making search engines and websites liable for
all the content catalogued by their search bots or uploaded by their users, as
SOPA would do, goes beyond “effective” and into “egregious.”
harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which
require website operators to remove infringing content when notified by
intellectual property rights holders, have allowed Silicon Valley to create
companies such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to name a few. Why change this now?
The U.S. Congress, which actually did help create the Internet as
we know it today by turning it to over to the public, should be looking to do
everything it can to stimulate the Internet economy. Instead, it appears they are ready to regulate it into the
ground and give our foreign competitors a leg up on Austin, Boston and Silicon
Valley. As the Asia Internet
Coalition, a trade group of Internet companies doing business in Asia, noted, Thailand’s
approach threatens to have a “significant
long term impact on Thailand’s economy.” Do we really want to follow their example?
SOPA would be the digital era’s version of the Smoot-Hawley
Tariff or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act—a myopic, special interest driven piece of
legislation that would wreak havoc on the greater U.S. economy. Hopefully, Congress listens to more
than just Hollywood before it goes the way of Thailand.