A couple of weeks ago, as I was investigating PIPA and SOPA online, I found myself on americancensorship.org, clicking through to the page for Ohio. There I found contact information for my Senators and a message board to coordinate with fellow Ohioans under the banner of Ohio for Internet Freedom. Over the course of the subsequent weeks this hodgepodge group of folks seeking to do something about P.R.O.T.E.C.T. IP managed to arrange a meeting with Senator Sherrod Brown‘s Deputy State Director, Beth Thames. This is the story of our meeting with her yesterday morning.
I arrived in Cleveland at around 9am and found the Senator’s office without a hitch. By about 20 to ten my fellow organizers, Matt Stafford and his father, had arrived and we chatted amongst ourselves until Beth came out to meet us. She greeted us with a smile and put us at ease as she welcomed us into her office to meet around a small table to discuss our concerns with the P.R.O.T.E.C.T. IP Act.
Matt suggested that I take the lead in our discussion, and so I opened by asking Beth for more details regarding the Senator’s position on the bill: why does he support it? what aspects of it does he believe will do good? While she could not officially comment for the Senator as to his position, she did say, as a member of his staff for fifteen years, that she believes his interest in the bill is at least in part driven by a desire to protect consumers. Noting that this was not an exhaustive representation of his support for the bill, she mentioned that he wanted to fight, among other things, the availability of counterfeit prescription drugs in the United States. I responded that, if his concern was counterfeit drugs, a more targeted bill might help him achieve those goals, and I was reminded that this was not his only reason for supporting the bill.
From there I launched into my argumentation against P.R.O.T.E.C.T. IP, running along two major themes: the bill is anti-competition and grants the government censorship powers. To explain the former, I cited the MPAA and RIAA as examples of the bill’s supporters. These industry groups represent what was, once upon a time, the new media: when recording came of age last century, it supplanted an entertainment industry driven by live performance. Now that these industries have established themselves, they don’t want to have to compete with the alternative distribution models that have become popular in the last decade: they don’t want to have to innovate. There was a bit more to flesh out the argument than that, but that’s the crux of it. I did not mention at the time the oft-cited figures of soaring profits in these industries despite (or, perhaps, caused by?) piracy and advertising-based distribution of their media for “free”.
After some discussion I went into the censorship component of the bill: we do not want to grant the government, let alone private companies, the ability to censor the internet. Even with discussion in the past week of dropping the DNS provisions, the bill grants the power to cut off search engine leads and advertising revenue, which is plenty to kill a website.
The web today is driven by user-generated content. This is what has spurred the internet’s growth in the past decade. But P.R.O.T.E.C.T. IP disincentivizes entrepreneurship. If I want to start a new site based on user-generated content, I have to hire dozens of additional people to moderate user comments or develop technology to automate this process. If I choose not to do this, I risk having users’ comments get my site blacklisted. Even if my domain name still resolves, losing search engine traffic, losing advertising revenue could put me, and all my employees, out of a job in a heartbeat. The business climate PIPA creates would stifle innovation and entrepreneurship on the web.
Following this initial line of argumentation, I invited Matt to share his views as well. Bringing up the DNS provisions, he pointed out that the bill runs counter to DNSSEC, a standard heretofore supported by the US government and designed to secure the internet against high-level hacking. Beyond the DNS component, we brought up the effect this has on consumers. For the technically savvy, there will be workarounds (we already have Tor for getting around the Great Firewall of China). For the less technically savvy, it’s likely that hacked versions of these workarounds will proliferate: if they’re not careful in what they download, they may well get a virus with their censorship-workaround software. For the still less technically savvy, these things won’t even be an option: their experience on the internet will simply never be the same.
This effect spills over into business as well. The United States of America is still a world-leader in online technologies. Innovations in our tech sector drive the industry forward. But if we start burdening search engines and advertisers with these additional responsibilities, we could see them start moving abroad. “Easiest way around PIPA-firewalls? Use google.fr!” or some other service hosted elsewhere. Until the government starts blocking them too.
At a few points throughout our meeting, we did joke with Beth that this would put us in the same league as China and Iran. This led us to acknowledge the political rhetoric just waiting to be let loose: these bills are fundamentally un-American—stifling the free-market and bringing about government censorship. Connecting this theme to the threat of businesses leaving the US, we discussed Google’s withdrawal from mainland China following years of attempts to compromise their ethics sufficiently to operate in the People’s Republic.
Matt also brought up his job at the Examiner, and the prospect of lost income not only for businesses but for individuals who freelance. The effects of the bill are far-reaching and would hinder his ability to contribute to the local economy of Cleveland. He also brought up the government-condoned vigilante justice portion of the bill. This portion, Section 5, encourages ISPs to violate our privacy and investigate the contents of our data transfers by saying that they shall not be held accountable for actions taken “in good faith” to serve the purposes of PIPA. This led me to suggest that the Senator should support a bill for net neutrality, making the ISPs utilities providers who should provide “dumb pipes” to transfer our data, regardless of the content.
At the end of the meeting, Beth asked us if there was anything in this bill that we thought could be saved. I said yes. What can be saved is the spirit of support for law enforcement. I see this bill as a cry for help from law enforcement and the DOJ as much as a concerted anti-competition effort on the part of certain industries. But we can support law enforcement with additional resources and staff without new legislation.
I did also say that incorporating more due process in the bill might make it more palatable, though even with a trial in place rather than the mere request of the Attorney General or a rights-holder this amounts to a censorship bill. I stressed this final point heavily: the bill is fundamentally a bill to censor the internet, and that is entirely unacceptable.
Deputy State Director Beth Thames thanked us for sharing our concerns. Having taken our contact information at the beginning of the meeting, she let us know that the Senator’s office would be in touch sometime soon with their response to our meeting. I look forward to receipt of this information and will share what I can at that time.
Thanks for taking an interest in protecting our freedoms online, thanks for reading my tale. Please share your thoughts on the meeting, questions, comments, your own arguments for or against this sort of legislation. Let’s continue the dialogue that makes our nation great!