One of the obvious dangers of the Internet Age is that we’ll be so distracted by everything going on around us – lots of it interesting, complicated, and even important (not to mention all the stuff that’s idiotic and unimportant and fundamentally uninteresting) — that we will fail to recognize the truly important stuff when it comes along.
The IP bills that Congress now has before it — the Senate version of which is known as PROTECT-IP, the House version as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), sometimes known as the “E-Parasite” bill — are deep and profound threats to the Net and to our freedom on the Net. If anyone has good ideas about how to fight back other than to stand on the street-corner, as I am doing now, and shouting to the rooftops, I’d be interested to hear them.
I helped draft a Law Profs Letter in Opposition, and I’ve blogged about it a number of times before, as have others — good places to start if you are unfamiliar with the issue are the EFF site, the CDT site, and Techdirt. But I’m going to keep at it because this is an issue that really needs more public traction than it is getting. I’m not going to stand here and say that this law will destroy the Internet as we know it, though I actually believe that to be true. I’m not going to say it, because predicting the future is impossible and I like to avoid doing it in public — though, like all of us, I have my own beliefs about what the future will bring. So I’ll put that aside and focus on the principles at stake; even if the damned thing weren’t going to destroy the Net as we know it, it is of surpassing ugliness, and if you care about freedom and liberty, you’ll agree with me.
Here’s the Internet we get after this becomes law. The prosecutor walks into a courtroom with evidence that a website — or, more likely, 1000 websites — are “dedicated to infringing activities.” If he/she can persuade the judge of that, those websites vanish from the Net (through a complex wave of judicially-mandated action that has to be obeyed by ISPs, domain name registrars, etc.). No need for messy “adversary proceedings,” “due process,” or similar niceties. No need to bother with details like “is there a defense to the charge?” No need even for the prosecutor, under the statutory terms, to prove what a copyright plaintiff would have to prove if this were an ordinary infringement suit: i.e., that the website operator in question had “actual knowledge of specific infringing files” on the site in question. None of that.
It’s nice of Congress, I suppose, to provide that a neutral judge has to have seen the evidence and issued an order before sites can be eliminated; I’m sure there are plenty of folks in Congress and the US Attorney’s Office who would like to eliminate that last bit of messiness and administrative inconvenience, too. But there’s a good reason why, except in truly extraordinary circumstances where public health and safety are imminently threatened, we don’t throw people in jail, or deprive people of their livelihoods, or divest them of their property, whenever a prosecutor and a judge agree that those are just punishments.
And it’s a lot worse than even that. Get this: The House version makes it unlawful (and subjects you to this elimination order) if you:
“tak[e] deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the [website] to carry out acts that constitute a violation of [the copyright or trademark statutes].”
Take a careful look at what’s going on here. If the prosecutors have been snooping around on my website to find infringing material and I take “deliberate steps” that prevent them from “confirming” that I have such material on the site — perhaps I have this pet peeve about government agents crawling around what I might regard as private space and I have tried to keep them out — then I have violated the statute even if I don’t actually have infringing material on the site. That is, it’s an independent violation of law to keep the prosecutors from “confirming” that you’re violating the law — all the prosecutor has to show, to make you vanish from the Net, is that you’ve somehow tried to keep the prosecutor off of your website!
It violates principles I’m tempted to call sacred — and all for what?? To protect the rights of our intellectual property owners — to make the world safe for our record companies and movie studios and publishing houses. Even if it was going to work, if the price for protecting those rights is that we have to abandon due process, and the notion that there are 2 sides to every story, and the notion that government agents do not have an inalienable right to know everything that I am doing on the Internet or anywhere else, that price is way too high.
And of course it’s not going to work. I guarantee that. It’s too easy to circumvent — anyone who understands the technology will agree with that. Sure, it will ensnare many unlawful actors. But at Internet scale, ensnaring some of the bad guys does not and cannot appreciably affect the conduct in question. Think of it this way: If there are 10 bad guys out there, and you’ve got a way to catch, say, 5 of them, that’s usually a pretty good scheme. We’ll have 5 fewer bad guys, and who knows, maybe just by probabilistic chance you’ll catch all 10; after all, if you’re 50 percent likely on average to catch each bad guy, it’s unlikely but by no means impossible that you’ll get ‘em all.
But if there are 10 million bad guys and you get rid of half of them, there are still 5 million bad guys out there. And, with intellectual property, 5 million bad guys can do precisely as much “damage” to your intellectual property as 10 million. If “stamping out copyright infringement” looks like a nightmarish game of whack-a-mole that you can’t possibly win – well, I’m sorry about that, but that’s just the way the world is, so get over it. There’s more — much more — peer-to-peer file-sharing going on today than in the heyday of Napster and Grokster. Deal with it – not by killing my Internet, thank you very much.
UPDATE: Anthony Falzone over at the Stanford Center for Information and Society points out a couple of places where people can speak out about this — see his posting at here, the petition at whitehouse.gov, and the EFF’s “Write Your Congressperson” page
UPDATE 2: Thanks to Ryan Radia and others, who pointed out that this posting inadvertently conflates the two bills (SOPA and Protect IP) now floating around in the House and Senate, respectively, regarding the due process problems raised by the bills. SOPA has corrected some of Protect IP’s more egregious due process problems — eliminating the express invitation for court’s to issue orders based on ex parte hearings. So in a sense my post is focusing on the worst aspects of each bill — which is fair enough, I think, given that we could well end up with the worst aspects of each. I also happen to think that as a practical matter, the due process concerns are still alive in SOPA, which allows courts to enter “TROs, preliminary injunctions, and permanent injunctions in accordance with Rule 65 of the FRCP” against domain names after an in rem proceeding; given that the actual defendants are very likely to be overseas and not subject to in personam jurisdiction, this is likely to lead to a profusion of suits in which no true adversary proceeding is really possible as a practical matter.