Internet Censorship: How SOPA and Protect IP Affects Law Firms

All great revolutions have a “freedom” song to encourage valor in dissidents, to celebrate liberty for all, and to express sentiments of solidarity in protest.

A myriad of poems and songs during the American Revolution memorialized the fight for freedom, such as “Liberty Song” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Even the Stamp Act was singled out by a catchy tune, “American Taxation,” by Peter St. John.

In contemporary times, we are reminded of the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Musical patriotism is alive and well in America, but these days, the expression and protection of the bill of rights concern web-based conflict.

Today, you can sing along to yet one more reason for dissent, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In keeping with tradition, the act has inspired its own freedom song, “Firewall,” by Leah Kauffman (via CNET).

And, the digital revolution is not lost on British songwriters, either. Dan Bull, a U.K. singer, released “SOPA Cabana,” which also openly opposes the Republican legislation currently under debate in the House (via CNET).

So, why does SOPA deserve these trial-and-tribulation tributes?

SOPA and its sister bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, target overseas “rogue websites” that host illegal copies of movies, videos, music, and photos. If passed, the law would require Internet service providers to deny customers access to any violating website, domain name, or IP address.

There are broader implications to the bill. Search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing, for example, will be required to adjust their search results to exclude foreign websites in violation of the bill. Payment providers and ad services will also be impacted, being forced to refuse business to any website in violation of the bill’s terms.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, defended the bill, saying, “Rogue Web sites that steal America’s innovative and creative products attract more than 53 billion visits a year and threaten more than 19 million American jobs.”

It seems, however, that American jobs within affected U.S. industries—Internet service providers, search engines, ad services, to name a few—will be the first to lose, as U.S. companies will bear the burden and costs of compliance.

The Verge (via Above the Law) summarizes the bill’s major problem, “Because US copyright holders generally can’t drag a foreign web site into US courts to get them to stop stealing and distributing their work, SOPA allows them to go after the ISPs, ad networks, and payment processors that are in the United States. It is a law borne of the blind logic of revenge: the movie studios can’t punish the real pirates, so they are attacking the network instead.”

In the same vein, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote an on-point The New York Times op-ed against SOPA. She starts her article with:

“China operates the world’s most elaborate and opaque system of Internet censorship. But Congress, under pressure to take action against the theft of intellectual property, is considering misguided legislation that would strengthen China’s Great Firewall and even bring major features of it to America.”

In addition to the questionably unconstitutional nature of the bill described above, SOPA also seeks to infringe on some of the social and political liberties upon which America was founded:

“YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have played an important role in political movements from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. At present, social networking services are protected by a ‘safe harbor’ provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grants Web sites immunity from prosecution as long as they act in good faith to take down infringing content as soon as rights-holders point it out to them. The House bill would destroy that immunity, putting the onus on YouTube to vet videos in advance or risk legal action. It would put Twitter in a similar position to that of its Chinese cousin, Weibo, which reportedly employs around 1,000 people to monitor and censor user content and keep the company in good standing with authorities.”

Recently some Biglaw firms were thrown into the fray.

Aside from those law firms who were directly implicated in the bill, firms should pay attention to the progression of SOPA for three main reasons:

1. Take a position

SOPA in the House, and Protect IP in the Senate, have widespread implications, and they will certainly affect the business of your best clients. So, find out quickly where they (and you) weigh in.

2. Act 

Law and politics are inherently mixed. If there were ever a time to act on this hotbed issue (by, say, biglaw pressure), now is the time. The Senate Judiciary committee has already approved the Protect IP bill and it’s waiting for a floor vote that has been scheduled for January 24. Furthermore, during a two-day debate in the House Judiciary committee in mid-December, SOPA supporters seemed to have a commanding majority on the committee. Congress returns in 2012 to vote on the bill.

3. Prepare

The number of online companies is growing rapidly. Whether or not your firm supports SOPA, if it passes in the House, lawyers will need to bring many of their clients with web-based corporations into compliance.

Ultimately, lawyers have long composed this country’s first patriots. Two-thirds of the fifty-five delegates who attended the American Constitutional Convention were lawyers.

And, it was a lawyer—Francis Scott Key—who wrote the lyrics to this country’s most symbolic and proudest tune, The Star Spangled Banner.

In 2012, your firm faces a difficult decision. What anthem—for or against the IP revolution—will you sing?

-WB

Read more about why law has an important place in politics in, “Peace, War, and Lawyers” in addition to other constitutional upsets here.

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