The Stop Online Piracy Act, and its sister legislation in the Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act caused quite a stir in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington. The two bills were intended to put a hard stop on theft of intellectual property on the Internet, by means that are controversial in terms of the First Amendment. Big players from the overlapping worlds of movies and music pushed for this bill. So did their high priced lobbyists. But SOPA and PIPA were ultimately shelved last week, and not just because there were formidable forces lined up against it. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter are just a few of the tech companies that opposed the bills, and they can certainly afford some pretty high priced lobbyists, too.
What also put a knife through the heart of SOPA and PIPA was the non-paid lobbyist community—a.k.a., the grassroots. The last few weeks, millions of people signed petitions in opposition of the bills. And sites like Wikipedia and Reddit went dark for 24 hours in protest.
“What has happened in the last few weeks will permanently change the way citizens communicate with their government… This is a new day,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. Wyden has been SOPA and PIPA’s chief opponent in the Senate.
I don’t argue with the good intentions of the bills’ sponsors—online piracy of music, movies and the like is a serious problem that has existed and grown in direct proportion to the existence and growth of the Internet itself. But Silicon Valley folks argued that the proposed legislation would seriously curtail the operations of very popular websites, such as YouTube, even though the proprietors of those sites are not trying to steal anything themselves, and generally take steps to be certain that they don’t, in the language of the bills, “facilitate” online piracy.
Regardless of the fate that befalls either piece of legislation, the battle over online piracy is raging and will continue for quite some time. And the reason why the issue will remain top of mind is the same reason why the bills were beaten back: powerful interests lined up on both sides of the issue, and real people weighed in and let their voices be heard. I only hope that people keep talking because the truth of the matter is that SOPA and PIPA only scratch the surface of online piracy.
But while we contemplate the gargantuan battle of the content vs. technology worlds, we must not forget an equally serious, actually even more serious example of online piracy.
While no numbers have been reliably developed to compare the two, I would make book that the most common and sinister piracy that goes on via the Internet involves database compromise and identity theft rather than theft of movies or music. According to the Identity Theft Research Center, 4,300,056 records containing sensitive consumer data were stolen in hacking incidents in 2011 alone, exposing those consumers to the risk of identity theft. The current proposed legislation doesn’t deal with identity theft, but of course, there are a number of laws on both federal and state books that do. Unfortunately, most aren’t tough enough and, in the case of the federal government, they are few and far between.
One of the complaints I have often heard from proponents of SOPA is not so much that existing law is inadequate, but rather that existing enforcement of that law is lacking. Doubtless, while SOPA (or Son of SOPA) provides new and potent enforcement weapons, the noise surrounding the recent battle will definitely step up enforcement activities under current law, something that is critical, especially if both bills die beneath the Capitol dome (which apparently one has). And given the fact that Congress has mastered the art of internecine squabbling and gridlock, nothing seems to be going anywhere fast in Washington, no matter how serious the problem.
If only identity theft were as buzz worthy; alas, (the recently departed) SOPA and PIPA are big news because of the power and prestige of those on both sides of the issue. That's why the grassroots ultimately had to get involved.
The victims of intellectual property piracy are generally large and powerful companies, with lobbyists in Washington and in every important state capital, with money to spend to help with enforcement or to technologically impede the theft of their property. On the other hand, the victims of identity theft are generally individuals with meager resources, both financial and political, to fight against the theft of their sensitive personal information, and the destruction of their financial lives, or even more dire consequences should they experience medical or criminal identity theft. Put simply, the victims of intellectual property theft are generally much wealthier and more powerful than the thieves, whereas in identity theft, the playing field is generally more tilted in favor of the bad guys.
It's safe to say that if multibillion dollar companies need more legislation and better enforcement procedures to protect their property, individuals need all the help they can get to protect theirs. While there are many organizations that do their best to prevent identity theft, they cannot match the resources available to those who have large financial interests at stake, like the entertainment companies that have embraced SOPA. This is, after all, America, where money talks but big money shouts.
I hope that the senators and representatives who are hell-bent to kill or at least seriously maim the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other consumer-oriented federal regulatory agencies take note of the fact that consumers need all the help they can get to protect their identities. Unfortunately, there are no lobbyists or media campaigns to shout at Congress, but perhaps a large chorus of smaller voices will make a lot of noise at the polls in November.