Friday, December 23, 2011

SOPA and PIPA- A dangerous overreach of federal power with far reaching consequences to freedom.

 What would you say if I told you that there was a bill winding its way through Congress with extensive support from members on both sides of the partisan political divide, with unamimous backing by hugely powerful Hollywood and Recording Industry Association lobbies that could address the serious problem of piracy on a global scale? (You know, where some Chinese scofflaws steal and mass produce for sale American music or movies with no compensation to the creators, or, perhaps closer to home, so called “bit torrent” sites which allow people to share and download songs and movies free of charge). What's wrong with that you'd probably say, right? (I mean, it goes without saying that piracy is a serious problem hurting American creators of “intellectual property,” as its called, particularly in the case of rogue international websites, which these bills purport to address).

But what would you say if I told you that the laws under consideration to do that, the so called “Stop Online Piracy Act” and “Protect IP Act's” (SOPA and PIPA respectively), that are currently winding their way through Congress allow private corporations and private interests, through the mere filing of a complaint with the federal government, to effectively censor or “seize” control of independently-created and run websites so as to make them appear as if they “didn't exist” by taking control of or diverting your ip address? (And for the technically challenged that stands for “internet protocol” address, the universal locator on the world wide web which tells your computer where to navigate to to get the required information you have posted, click here for more info on the technical aspects covered in prior posts). You'd probably do a double take and want to know a little more it; I mean, surely, this is all much ado about nothing! This is after all America, the land of the free and home of the brave, right?
Moreover, what if I told you the gov and/or these private organizations could do so without probable cause, a court order, or any advance notice? Sounds crazy, or Orwellian, or both, right? Well believe it or not, that is exactly what we're faced with from these two well-meaning but ill thought out pieces of legislation Well that's what this author initially thought. Unfortunately, you would be wrong as I was.

The problem with SOPA and PIPA is not that they fail to address real issues that need some address, they clearly do, (as piracy is a huge problem, especially involving offshore companies out of the United States jurisdiction to avoid enforcement of our piracy laws already on the books). The problem is the potential “chilling” and loss of First Amendment and Associational freedoms lost in the process.

In essence, these well meaning but overarching pieces of federal legislation use a jackhammer to kill a mosquito, and are seriously flawed as a matter of law as they place the burden for “proving” one's website is, in fact, lawful, (and after one's independent website is shut down and free speech rights stifled).

Such concerns have brought together a myriad of organizations to advocate in the public interest to defeat these laws; indeed, no doubt many of you have seen or heard something regarding them from such diverse websites and organizations as Google, Craigslist, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Center for Law and Justice, (no relation to this organization), all of whom oppose SOPA and PIPA too. And while there are far more detailed explanations of these pieces of legislation other places, such as HERE, and HERE, (many in more detail and with expertise I no longer have the luxury of devoting to such matters, as a simple google of the topic will reveal), it does not take a degree in rocket science to know what is the right thing to do. In such matters, we take pride in informing our readers what we do know and help sound the alarm.

Accordingly, today we join with many other organizations-- some of which we have nothing in common politically except this desire for a less drastic and invasive response to the problem of piracy that adheres to the spirit of our laws and Constitution-- in calling for Congress to scuttle this well meaning but overreaching legislation in favor of much less invasive alternatives, (such as the bill proffered by Congressional watchdog and Congressmen Darryl Issa, click here for details).

And though we admittedly lack the time (or budget) for an exhaustive examination of the language of these controversial pieces of legislation as is my wont and I used to do in the early days of this fledging enterprise, (just click on previous, older, posts), it is enough to know that we have looked into the expressed concerns sufficiently to see if they are mere hype about scofflaws and college students intent on saving a little money by downloading a few pirated songs and have found more than ample evidence to indicate that they are not.

Indeed, in the ACLP's humble opinion, SOPA and PIPA represent and real and present danger to First Amendment freedoms and constitutional rights of association of all citizens.

What concerns us most about this legislation is that, as alluded to above, corporations and/or the justice department on their behalf can, in stark contrast to usual constitutional principles requiring probable cause or at least some judicial preview first, to be able to singlehandedly shutter almost any or all of a bloggers or organization's website without regard to whether the blogger or organization is actually aware of the copyright infringing/piracy activities and without regard to whether that particular portion of the website is the offending part. In essence it's a “guilty before proven innocent” approach in which, although you might be entitled to request a hearing and/or appeal such draconian action afterwards, in the interim you are completely shut out of reaching your customers and/or audience.

Now I don't have to tell you that we are no fan of the current Administration's policies, especially when it comes to self-aggrandizing maximizations of power in itself. Indeed, whether on the issue of invading Libya without proper Congressional oversight and permission, the Fast and Furious scandal, the attempt to muzzle talk radio with the “fairness” doctrine, or the corrupt crony capitalism of the Pres and company evident in the Boeing or Solyndra affairs, we have time and time again pointed out the Obama Administration's penchant for maximizing its own power and authority at the expense of the American people; (in that regard we should point out that in some ways this sounds an awful lot, in another context, like the Administration's M.O. in attempting to deny Freedom of Information Requests and “pretend” like they don't exist.

And unlike some to the political right of us in the Tea Party, we don't start with the assumption that this blatant attempt to consolidate even more power in the Executive branch necessarily has anything to do with the fact that we are standing before what will undoubtedly be one of the most blatant political campaigns of political smear and disinformation from an Obama political attack machine against the GOP and their presidential challenger like none ever seen in the history of man, (although it certainly would make Obama's reelection effort easier if they could simply use SOPA and PIPA to click an “off” switch and shut down conservative critics at strategic points in the campaign, wouldn't it?)

To us, it is enough that the prospect and potential effects upon the small time non profit or independent web journalist like yours truly or the countless number of others who blog in the public interest would be devastating; Indeed, in that light these lawless “laws” run the very real and present danger of having an extraordinarily chilling effect on open communication and free speech which have become a hallmark of the cause of freedom against tyranny through the internet world wide. (Or, as unnamed influences in my life would say, “if it aint broke, why fix it?” lol).

Indeed, using SOPA and/or PIPA to “cure” the problem of piracy is a bit like fixing the problem of a mosquito with a sledgehammer; sure, you might temporarily solve the problem-- at least until a thousand more come through the hole you've just opened in your wall-- but the cure is clearly more deadly, and constitutionally dangerous, than the disease. jp