Disney may be pleased with pirates right now, but the rest of Hollywood isn’t happy; digital piracy, the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted films and television shows, continues to occur en masse over the Internet.
Fortunately for the industry, the federal government is stepping up to act, as Judicary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy pushes forward with the PROTECT IP Act. The bill seeks to combat copyright violations by creating new causes of action that can be used for private suits, and enhancing the government’s power to crack down on violators.
However, the bill has received criticism from prominent sources. Recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt turned headsby claiming the bill would violate free speech rights, and committing to fight it because of this. Schmidt’s reaction led Hollywood supporters of the bill – perhaps overzealously – to attack Schmidt; the MPAA stated, “Google seems to think its above America’s laws.”
Though it may be hyperbole to claim that Google is about to engage in vigilantism, others are quite serious about the idea. The infamous hacktivist organization Anonymous declared its intention to target and attackthe U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its support of the PROTECT IP Act. Anonymous is criticizing the bill as a tool that allows government not just to shut down copyright violators, but also anyone antithetical to their interests. Anonymous claims such power would amount to undemocratic Internet censorship on an unprecedented scale.
The concern has legitimacy, and Anonymous isn’t the only one voicing it. Given the vagueness of the restrictions, the degree to which the government can close websites as it pleases remains worrisome (for example, would that Surf The Channel link I embedded earlier in this article give the Justice Department the ability to shut down the entire HLPR blog to crack down on “piracy?”).
However, Anonymous’s all-or-nothing approach to Internet access is flawed, and exposes us to the same threats of exploitation they purport to fight against. While the government is potentially going too far in some areas of Internet control, it is not doing enough in other areas, most notably Net Neutrality. In a time of unsettling corporate mergers involving service providers, potential for abuse, and more unsettling corporate mergers involving service providers, a lack of regulation would give private corporations the means to manipulate and restrict our Internet content, just as Anonymous fears the government doing. The truth is that both authority and anarchy have the potential for abuse; if we are to preserve the Internet as a powerful force for democracy and autonomy, we need to use law and government to find a middle ground.