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Congress should kill online piracy bill

Posted: November 28, 2011 - 12:01am

The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Listen up, Congress: There are times when Silicon Valley really can help you understand the complexities of legislation that will affect the tech industry — and the world economy. The raging debate over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act is one of those times.

It’s not just the future of the industry that’s at stake here. It’s national security.

Congress needs to put the brakes on the horrific piracy legislation that is hurtling toward passage at the behest of the entertainment industry. Members need to work with San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren and other representatives on an alternative approach to curbing the theft of intellectual property.

President Barack Obama needs to listen, too. He should tell Congress — now — that he will veto the legislation unless a compromise is found to meet Hollywood’s needs without killing the Internet as we know it. And no, that is not excessive hyperbole.

Online piracy is a serious problem for moviemakers and recording studios. But the proposed legislation is both unlikely to work and likely to cripple the technology companies that, based on last week’s growing job numbers, are crucial to lifting the economy toward a real recovery. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, eBay, Twitter, Zynga and dozens of other tech companies and venture firms are fighting this bill. And no wonder.

The legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, gives copyright owners and the federal government the power to shut down websites, a practice Obama and many members of Congress have denounced China for doing. (Where are the human rights groups? They should be up in arms about this.)

Smith’s bill holds Web companies responsible for policing the Internet. Google, Yahoo and Facebook would be expected to shut down rogue operators, and if they didn’t, the government could shut down their whole sites or invite punishing, expensive lawsuits. Imagine the resources required to parse through the millions of Google and Facebook offerings every day looking for pirates who, if found, can just toss up another site in no time. It is a whack-a-mole strategy.

Then there’s the national security issue. Sandia National Laboratories does classified and unclassified work for the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense, so Lofgren asked Computer Director Leonard Napolitano to evaluate the proposed law. In a letter Wednesday, Napolitano argued forcefully that the bill (1) is unlikely to work and (2) “would negatively impact U.S. and global cybersecurity and Internet functionality.” He said that filtering and other mandates could block plans for government security improvements.

Hollywood’s frustration with piracy is understandable. It claims losses in the tens of billions of dollars and up to 750,000 jobs. But helping one industry by threatening to destroy another makes no sense, even if national security were not in play.

There is a better alternative. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Lofgren recommend going after the people processing the sales of pirated material, a strategy that has proved effective with online gambling. Follow the money and stop piracy from being profitable.

If it removes a barrier to national security, so much the better.

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