The Obama Administration Opposes SOPA, But Not Strongly Enough
In fact, that provision goes well farther than the White House’s carefully worded statement implies. In addition to targeting payment processors, advertisers and search engines, SOPA would also enable the government, or approved private entities, to effectively destroy suspected infringing sites via court orders requiring ISPs to block access to them. This is separate from the equally troublesome manipulation of the Domain Name System, which the Administration rightly opposes. To clarify, under the current DMCA framework, copyright holders who suspect a site has hosted infringing content are required to request that the site remove them within a certain period of time. SOPA would remove that burden, giving sole responsibility for policing content to the sites themselves, while simultaneously allowing copyright holders to seek a court order to shut the site down without first notifying them of the problem.
Yes, the bit about “overly broad private rights” suggests the provision, but given the very specific references to advertisers, payment processors and search engines, that they opted not to call this final problem out along with them is troubling. Granted, Representative Lamar Smith, SOPA’s chief sponsor, announced Friday that he would request that the DNS-blocking provision be removed from the bill. If this comes to pass — and that’s assuming the similar provision in PIPA is also removed; if it is not, then the monster could end up in the conference version of the bill — this concern may soon be moot. That would be great news, but as it hasn’t been removed yet, it remains a serious enough threat that it should have been specifically noted in the statement.
It’s important to note also that it isn’t just what is left out, but what is said outright, that ought to give us further pause:
That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to the principles outlined above in this response. We should never let criminals hide behind a hollow embrace of legitimate American values.
It could be said that our values only matter when they’re applied, even to people who only give them “a hollow embrace.” Suggestions that we ought to jettison them when they’re enjoyed by people we don’t like says something worse about us than it does about them. For that reason alone, we ought to be concerned that despite reservations, the Obama Administration is still supporting some form of the bill. Worse, it is engaging in the worst kind of distraction and obfuscation, the solicitation of suggestions from complainants as a means of disarming them:
So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here?… The organizer of this petition and a random sample of the signers will be invited to a conference call to discuss this issue further with Administration officials and soon after that, we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions. Details on that will follow in the coming days… Our hope is that you will bring enthusiasm and know-how to this important challenge.
Last week, Kyle Orland asked “SOPA Isn’t the Solution, But Can We At Least Agree There’s A Problem?” That’s a conversation worth having, but not, I think, under the current conditions, and especially not under the framework described above. The people organizing these petitions aren’t members of Congress and thus have no power whatsoever to officially propose anything. The government can freely disregard whatever suggestions are made to them, as they often do. Frankly, we elect people to Congress in order to pass laws on our behalf. Once the election ends, the most effective tool We, The People have is to express our disapproval whenever it looks like something terrible is going to be passed. Unless those invited to participate in a conversation are also granted some kind of real power to affect its outcome (beyond their votes, of course), consulting them is meaningless pageantry.
Still, it has to be said that it’s a very good sign that the White House has decided to weigh in on the issue, and further that they feel it necessary to (mostly) oppose SOPA. It’s proof that pressure works and that our government isn’t as unresponsive and captured as we often worry. We just need to keep up the pressure, until SOPA is finally killed for good. Once that happens, maybe we can talk about new solutions to the problem of piracy.
For more, see Ben Richardson’s concerns about the lack of opposition from the gaming industry. See also Phil Hornshaw’s breakdown of the January 18th SOPA blacklist protest, and suggestions for what can be done to fight the bill.