A capitalist system of government maintains that the rights of all men must be respected and protected by the government for there to be a functioning, moral society – man’s right to his own life, to the full exercise of his liberty, to the pursuit of the improvement of his life, and to the consequences of those pursuits (i.e. man’s right to property) are all necessarily included. Further, those rights must be protected in all their forms: man’s right to life includes his right to defend himself from initiated force; man’s right to the pursuit of his happiness includes his right to behave irrationally; man’s right to his property includes both the tangible creations of the sweat of his brow and the intellectual products of his mind.
The latter form of property, known by most as “intellectual property”, generally requires less physical resources and capital to produce, thus allowing for expedited production and spread once the original product has been completed. Though the quality of intellectual property can vary widely from something as powerful as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to something as inane as grade school video projects, the rise of new information technology, and the Internet in particular, allows intellectual property to be produced and shared at speeds never thought possible. But with every new advancement in these technologies, new challenges appear which must be addressed by the owners of intellectual property and law enforcement agencies.
Just as the Internet has enabled creators to share their works with an expansive audience, it has also opened doors for those who wish to expropriate intellectual property from its creators, reproduce it, display it without attribution, or share it with those who have not paid for it. Just as it would be immoral (and properly illegal) to take a book and reproduce it as one’s own or without paying all due royalties to copyright owner, it is equally immoral to do the same with MP3’s, movies, artwork, or any other kind of electronically-shareable good – the Internet only makes doing so easier.
To combat this, the House of Representatives proposed the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Senate proposed the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act or PIPA). Unfortunately, both bills delegate far too much authority to the government and even other corporations. As the Huffington Post reports, “SOPA would give both the government and major corporations the power to shut down entire websites accused of copyright infringement with neither a trial nor a traditional court hearing.” Opponents have voiced a very rational fear that the provisions could lead to abuse, censoring legitimate content for corporate or government interests without trial. Whereas permanent seizures (or shutdowns) of one’s property should require the assent of a jury of one’s peers, these regulations would be like so many already on the books – initiated and enforced (often selectively) while the rights of individuals and businesses are ignored and forgotten, permitting all kinds of abuse.
Fortunately, these pieces of legislation have garnered public attention at levels not seen since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 – even the National Defense Authorization Act which contained the so-called “indefinite detention provision” which allows the government to detain American citizens indefinitely without court hearing did not elicit a response such as this. In fact, numerous online domains “went dark” on Wednesday, January 18th to raise awareness for and protest both bills. From Internet giants such as Wikipedia, Google, WordPress, and Mozilla to Craigslist, reddit, TwicPic, and even ICanHazCheezburger.com (an image-sharing entertainment site) to thousands of even smaller sites, Internet-goers woke up this morning either being unable to access their favorite websites or to large warnings urging them to contact their Congressmen (often with phone numbers and E-mails provided) in opposition to PIPA and SOPA. Both liberal and conservative groups have opposed the bill, including MoveOn.org which decided to black itself out for the protest and the Heritage Foundation which voiced its own opposition, even going so far as to include votes on these two bills in its annual ranking of how “conservative” certain politicians are.
The actions started a firestorm throughout websites that did not even choose to participate in the protests – many individuals changed their profile pictures on social networking sites like Facebook with images which expressed their opposition to the two bills, and things such as “StopSOPA” trended throughout the day on Twitter (as of 6:45pm on Wednesday, four of the top ten trending searches on Google related to the protest). Facebook and Twitter, though they did not participate in the protest, also oppose both bills, as does AOL and domain registrar GoDaddy.com (though only after hemorrhaging customers due to its initial support). Fortunately, the public went further, supposedly flooding the offices of their elected representatives with questions and concerns over SOPA and PIPA. In response to the outrage of the public on which their jobs depends, the elected representatives responded.
By the end of Wednesday, three of the co-sponsors of PIPA (Senators Blunt, Boozman, and Hatch) dropped their sponsorship in direct response to the protests, and other Senators who had taken no formal position beforehand, such as Senators Udall (CO-D) and Merkley (OR-D), decided to stand against the bill. Other Senators on both sides of the aisle prepared to filibuster in the Senate to prevent PIPA from coming to a vote. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA-R) joined his colleagues in the Senate and declared that he will not allow SOPA to come to a vote. Other notable players, such as the Obama Administration and original co-sponsor of PIPA Sen. Ben Cardin, renounced any possible support which they may have held for the two bills last week, effectively leaving more hard-line progressives like Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Patrick Leahy alone in their support of PIPA, especially after Wednesday.
As the public outcry continued, the bills were tabled by leaders of both chambers. Senator Harry Reid rescinded his calls for a cloture vote, knowing well that the bill would fail, and SOPA was withdrawn by Represenative Lamar Smith, the chief sponsor of the legislation, but this is only the beginning. From the ashes of SOPA and PIPA a distant, euphemistically-named cousin: OPEN.
Senator Issa (R) and Senator Wyden (D) released a draft of the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act late on Wednesday. The new bill has several positive points, including a more narrowly-tailored definition of “rogue” websites, excluding search engines and DNS from injury, and giving websites the opportunity to remove flagged material rather than being shut down without notice. On the other side of the coin, OPEN still uses many vague definitions (far from uncommon in modern times, but still irresponsible), the burden would fall primarily on US payment service providers (PSP) and ad networks, and the problem of simultaneous “parallel proceedings” on the same issue at various locations throughout governmental bureaucracy is intensified. Without much question, OPEN is considerably better than either SOPA and PIPA, but there is much need for improvement before OPEN should be permitted to pass either house.
Regardless, the issue of protecting the rights of content creators while also respecting the rights of Internet users and webmasters to exercise their free speech and other liberties without coercion is very important. Liberty-minded organizations and factions like the Tea Party would do well to recognize the issue, to staunchly oppose statist answers to it, and to propose real solutions where possible, thus gaining support where a broad consensus for liberty already exists. Whatever the case, the solution should not include provisions which violate Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable search and seizure and Fifth Amendment rights to due process.
But perhaps the superficial issue of protecting intellectual property was not the most significant aspect of Wednesday’s blackout – there are numerous issues which the United States faces today, particularly those of protecting individual rights while avoiding and negating government infringement on them, and copyright protection is no different in that respect. Rather, what was truly meaningful about Wednesday’s events is that the public was mobilized en masse for the cause of individual liberty. The tech industry demonstrated, in a fashion not experienced prior to Wednesday, how quickly ideas are capable of spreading in today’s modern world and how those ideas can ignite a fire of passion which drives men to act productively. Though the protests may be over, they served as a flash of light at a time in which the shadow of statism looms over every man’s head. Though Google and the other online giants will not likely repeat their actions in the near future (and properly so, if such protests are to maintain their efficacy) one can hope that the fire they started will continue to spread, not from person to person, but within each man to different aspects of his personal constitution. As truly awe-inspiring as technological innovation can be in bringing about political change, one must remember that true change is the result of a cultural change, and that cultural change begins first and foremost with a personal change.