This month, Congress is expected to move forward on controversial legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate, both aimed at halting online copyright infringement.
The shorthand version of the controversy pits Hollywood against the Internet, with the studios pleading for more power to shut down overseas pirate sites. Internet companies, in turn, are warning that those powers may stifle innovation, open the door to online censorship, and even break the addressing system that makes the Internet work. Just this week, the White House — a major supporter of increased enforcement — acknowledged these concerns.
Much of the Internet sector is late to this debate. The online enforcement push has been under way since the mid-1990s. Penalties for infringement have increased. Law-enforcement agencies have been reorganized — twice. New international treaties have been adopted. And the studios and Internet service providers have hammered out plans for large-scale online enforcement against individuals.
SOPA and PIPA are just the next steps in this larger enforcement agenda. Whatever happens to them, online enforcement will remain a very slippery slope, with attendant risks of censorship, surveillance, and the loss of due process. Because nothing in SOPA or PIPA is likely to stop piracy, there will be strong pressure to keep sliding.