Choosing Censorship

Yesterday, the House of Representatives held hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (it’s being called SOPA, but I like E-PARASITE tons better). There’s been a lot of good coverage in the media and on the blogs. Jason Mazzone had a great piece in TorrentFreak about SOPA, and see also stories about how the bill would re-write the DMCA, about Google’s perspective, and about the Global Network Initiative’s perspective.

My interest is in the public choice aspect of the hearings, and indeed the legislation. The tech sector dwarfs the movie and music industries economically – heck, the video game industry is bigger. Why, then, do we propose to censor the Internet to protect Hollywood’s business model? I think there are two answers. First, these particular content industries are politically astute. They’ve effectively lobbied Congress for decades; Larry Lessig and Bill Patry among others have documented Jack Valenti’s persuasive powers. They have more lobbyists and donate more money than companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, which are neophytes at this game. 

Second, they have a simpler story: property rights good, theft bad. The AFL-CIO representative who testified said that “the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks.” That is perfectly true, and of course perfectly irrelevant. (More accurately: it is idiotic, but the AFL-CIO is a useful idiot for pro-SOPA forces.) The anti-SOPA forces can wheel to a simple argument themselves – censorship is bad – but that’s somewhat misleading, too. The more complicated, and accurate, arguments are that SOPA lacks sufficient procedural safeguards; that it will break DNSSEC, one of the most important cybersecurity moves in a decade; that it fatally undermines our ability to advocate credibly for Internet freedom in countries like China and Burma; and that IP infringement is not always harmful and not always undesirable. But those arguments don’t fit on a bumper sticker or the lede in a news story.

I am interested in how we decide on censorship because I’m not an absolutist: I believe that censorship – prior restraint – can have a legitimate role in a democracy. But everything depends on the processes by which we arrive at decisions about what to censor, and how. Jessica Litman powerfully documents the tilted table of IP legislation in Digital Copyright. Her story is being replayed now with the debates over SOPA and PROTECT IP: we’re rushing into decisions about censoring the most important and innovative medium in history to protect a few small, politically powerful interest groups. That’s unwise. And the irony is that a completely undemocratic move – Ron Wyden’s hold, and threatened filibuster, in the Senate – is the only thing that may force us into more fulsome consideration of this measure. I am having to think hard about my confidence in process as legitimating censorship.

Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.

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