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November 27, 2011 - 5:32pm

Obama's been traveling the country making "non-political" speeches about how this Congress can't accomplish anything, so he has to do whatever he can by executive action alone.  Unfortunately, Congress seems about to push back against the President's characterization by doing something, and the something they're likely to do is pretty awful.

Bill S.968, also known as “The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011”, "PROTECT-IP Act" or PIPA, is described by its sponsors (of which it has many on both sides of the aisle) as a jobs bill.  In reality (as with most such laws bearing titles contrived to justify catchy acronyms), its predictable effect is entirely the opposite of what those sponsors claim.  If you were to ask any random group of Americans what technology-based industry offers great potential for job creation over the next decade or two, I guarantee that "the internet" would score much higher than movies, music recording, cable TV or newspaper publishing.  Very possibly, higher than all four of them put together.  But the jobs the bill purports to protect are largely in those four industries, and the technology the bill threatens in defense of those jobs is the World Wide Web itself.

In a nutshell, PIPA allows the Justice Department or any individual to obtain a court order declaring websites as likely infringers of intellectual property -- or as enablers and facilitators of infringement of intellectual property -- and requiring search engines, financial transaction processors, even the Domain Name Service (the directory system for the WWW) to not support, not service, not even acknowledge the existence of the offending sites.  In cases where a site owner cannot be located or resides outside the USA, action could be taken against the domain name itself.  And all of this can happen without the supposedly offending site owner having any day in court.  (A far more precise summary is available here.)

I'll admit that if I were an executive of a movie, music recording, cable TV or newspaper publishing company, I'd be looking high and low for any way imaginable to improve my competitive position.  All those industries have been losing customers, and money, and participants for years if not decades.  But crippling the world wide web isn't going to solve their problems -- these are businesses whose basic business models have outlived their usefulness.  If the Web weren't eating their lunch, some other technology probably would be.  They charge too much, they deliver too little (how many really good records or movies came out this year?  when was the last time you scanned through the 250+ channels on your cable system and found something you really wanted to watch?), and they make accessing their product too inconvenient.  What really aggravates the players in these industries is that the infringing websites are whupping them in terms of both price and convenience, so the only above-board way they can compete is in terms of quality.  And quality offerings they simply don't have.

Mike Masnick has an excellent description of how flawed the business logic of this bill is, how easily the measures it prescribes will be defeated by anyone with the tech savvy of the average high school student (even the average 40-year-old), and how damaging the requirements will be to internet companies, creative artists, business start-ups, American consumers, pretty much everyone in an industry not already ossifying.  Two examples:

  • Any website which allows user-generated content could be charged as enabling or facilitating IP infringement.  Indeed, any email provider could be charged with the same thing.
  • The basic techniques (DNS and search engine blocking) prescribed in this bill are the same ones at the heart of the Great Firewall of China.  (As if that's a model we should be emulating!)

But unless voters rise up in arms today or tomorrow, PIPA is very likely to pass the Senate on Tuesday.  It already has 39 co-sponsors (go here and click on "view co-sponsors" to see the list).  And that list of co-sponsors is just an indication of the amount of money and influence at work here.  (If you can't already guess the origin of the money and lobbying muscle, OpenCongress has an excellent write-up).

This sort of Congressional misfeasance is hardly surprising.  Anyone who's been paying attention has seen the same players, for many of the same reasons, defend the interests of 19th-century energy industries over their 21st-century competitors, citizens, and the human race.  This is no worse, probably not even quite as bad.  It's just one more case.  One more bit of evidence that the socio-political system is broken.  One more reminder of how much I'd like to see politicians, like NASCAR drivers, wear patches with the logos of all their major contributors.  I've heard that idea attributed to Jim Hightower in the past, and it certainly sounds like him.  I call it "truth in wardrobe", but clearly I need to find a title which collapses to a catchier acronym.



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