Congress is supposed to represent the interests of everyone. But what happens when powerful special interests contribute heavily to lawmakers’ election campaigns? Last week Americans on the political right and left lined up to oppose SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and its Senate counterpart PIPA, the Protect IP Act. Internet giants like Google, Wikipedia, Mozilla and Tumblr went black for 24 hours last Wednesday, declaring it “American Censorship Day.” Google’s anti-SOPA petition received 4.5 million signatures. Prominent internet engineers sent a letter to Congress expressing their concerns. Fortunately the efforts were successful, as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House sponsor, agreed to “postpone consideration” of SOPA. But it could come back later, and there are other bills lurking in the wings that would encroach on privacy rights.
A big reason for the split between Congress and the rest of America on SOPA is due to Hollywood and the music recording industry’s big contributions to Democrats in Congress. They are pushing SOPA, and Democrats are the top three recipients of their donations. Time Warner is one of the 50 biggest contributors to political candidates, contributing 72% to Democrats. Consequently, more Democrats than Republicans in Congress support SOPA. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who sponsored PIPA in the Senate, received two of his top five largest campaign contributions this cycle from Time Warner and Walt Disney.
The top five recipients of campaign contributions from supporters of SOPA and PIPA — over $1 million — are all Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who planned on introducing PIPA in the Senate as a jobs bill, received over $3.5 million from supporters.
Republicans are not completely immune from the glitz of entertainment money. It is no coincidence that the top contributor to SOPA sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith this election cycle was Clear Channel Communications, which specializes in radio broadcasting. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a co-sponsor of PIPA in the Senate, has received more money from the entertainment industry than almost any other Senator, and his fourth biggest contributor this election cycle is Liberty Media, which distributes TV entertainment, sports and other programming.
Exacerbating the problem is the revolving door between Congress and groups that lobby for causes like this. Former staffers that worked on online piracy bills have gone over to working for the industries pushing for the legislation. A petition has been created demanding that the Obama administration investigate former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) over a statement he made in an interview with Fox News implying influence for money. Dodd left Congress to represent the Motion Picture Association of America. "Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," Dodd said. "Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."
The intent of SOPA is to protect intellectual property, and punish websites that do not respect copyrighted material. It is targeted at overseas pirating. It transfers the burden to overseas websites to remove content that might be considered infringing, instead of having complainants go through regular legal processes to get the content removed. It would allow the Justice Department the ability to stop search engines, advertisers, internet service providers and payment processors from doing business with websites, effectively shutting them down. Although the bill targets non-U.S. websites, many companies are international, which could subject them to SOPA.
Laws like this do not take into account the Wild West nature of the internet. If a mom wants to post a photo of Obama on her personal blog that three people read, it could trigger a complaint against her free overseas website host for a copyright violation. The law is too broadly written. The music and video industries are constantly changing and adapting as technology improves. Now anyone can record videos and music, take amateur photographs and write articles. The line between what should be copyrighted material and what is not has blurred, and for good reason. Anyone can now easily be an artist and display their work on the internet, and most of us do not want copyright protection because we would rather have our works distributed en masse. There is a lot of confusion and gray areas regarding what kinds of files are copyrighted and what are not.
With society moving to the internet, requiring internet sites to police their users will add an entirely new level of policing that never existed before. The burden that would be put on tech companies to behave as a new level of police will be enormous, and invasive and oppressive to internet users. One technology lawyer says SOPA really stands for Stop Online Productivity Altogether.
There are already laws in place to go after copyright infringers, like the DMCA and the NET Act. The DMCA provides a “safe harbor” and “fair use” for websites. There are plenty of lawsuits that take place every day to enforce copyright laws on the internet, so many that the copyright industry grew during the recession. Tech companies are proposing a more realistic solution where they would police themselves voluntarily, overseen by an international nonprofit that tracks infringers.
Although SOPA has been tabled for now, it could be revived in the future. While SOPA was loudly defeated, another similar law was quietly implemented. ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, was adopted by 39 countries last fall including the Obama administration in an Executive Order bypassing Congress. ACTA removes safeguards that protect internet service providers from liability for their users’ content, and requires them to block free software that can access copyrighted material. Security officials at airports would have the authority to conduct searches of travelers laptops, MP3 players and cell phones for illegally downloaded material. It will have its own governing board outside of existing governments. The U.S. government refuses to make the text of ACTA public, saying it would compromise security. Not surprisingly, the top recipient of the entertainment industry’s political contributions this cycle was Obama, receiving over one million dollars.
H.R. 1981, The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, will require internet providers to store every single customer’s browsing history, assigned IP address and private data for 18 months. The bill made it through committee last summer by a 19-10 vote. Is it really necessary to track activities of the entire country on the internet in order to find evidence of someone accessing child porn from a year ago? Most law enforcement stings find child porn searches instantly, and within a few days they can obtain a warrant and seize records from internet providers. Internet providers typically back up information for a week or a month.
Attorney General Eric Holder is supporting the bill, and the Justice Department went so far as to demand that the bill include wireless carriers. This is a change from the Bush administration’s position, which was concerned about massive data collection. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) warned, "It poses numerous risks that well outweigh any benefits, and I'm not convinced it will contribute in a significant way to protecting children." Criminals can get around H.R. 1981 by going to Starbucks and using free wifi where their web surfing cannot be tracked.
No one wants to be seen as on the side against toughening up laws on child porn, so it puts members of Congress in a tough position. But there are already extremely strict laws in place. The Protect our Children Act of 2008 requires internet providers to report child pornography transmissions to law enforcement, and there are expensive penalties for not complying.
H.R. 1981 heads down a slippery slope. Requiring internet providers to store this kind of information for 18 months will make it accessible for other reasons. Someone could sue you civilly for all kinds of reasons, subpoena your internet surfing records from your internet provider, and use them against you including releasing them publicly. Instead of embarking on this massive invasion of personal privacy, the burden should be left on law enforcement to subpoena private internet history.
There must be more valiant efforts to stop Congress from expanding government to Big Brother levels in order to please Hollywood or to sound superficially tough on child pornography. Privacy rights cannot be increasingly diminished. Unfortunately, many members of Congress are older and do not understand computers that well, but they understand campaign contributions.