SOPA, PIPA, and the Erosion of the Separation of Corporate and State Police
While it’s a slightly encouraging sign that the White House has signaled its opposition to the SOPA and PIPA legislation, it does so only on some technical grounds, not on what I would think are the more fundamental grounds, leading to the distinct possibility that the worst of these acts will eventually pass.
If you get a copy of the legislation (PDF file), you’ll note an entire section (starting on page 34) which allows a “qualifying plaintiff”–effectively a corporation holding copyrights–broad powers to act against anyone they feel is infringing on those rights. All they have to do is try to send mail (pages 35-36), if any addresses are available, and the action has started. If there’s no mail or if no one responds in seven days (page 38), then their powers expand considerably. The corporation can then get a court order which will go into effect in any jurisdiction (no more of this filing individual actions in each district) which will, within 5 days, shut down the web site’s account, force financial services (e.g., VISA or PayPal) to cut off their accounts (page 38-39), force advertisers to cut off all ads for the site which could include normal search engine results (page 40), and allow the corporation to send threatening messages to the site’s users (page 41). If the site owner still hasn’t shown up, the corporation can get a court to force them to comply and fine them (page 42).
Let’s say you have a monetized blog and a music label doesn’t like how you quoted lyrics from a song they own. They can not only send you a cease-and-desist order, but now that is backed up by an effective nuclear arsenal of legal weapons which, within 12 days, can utterly destroy your web site. You might be on vacation, or simply didn’t post an email address. Too bad, sucker–Sony Music just had your site taken down, all your links struck, all your accounts shut down, and sent threatening messages to everyone who left comments on your site or whose IP got any content from you.
Or let’s say you have an online business selling items, which may include items which make fair use of copyrighted material, say in the form of satire, protest, or other protected speech. If the corporation which owns that content wants to, they can take you down–and your powers to fight back are now excruciatingly limited, considering that they can smother your livelihood virtually at will.
More to the point, they can threaten you with all this–unless you do exactly what they tell you immediately. If you want to fight it, you might have to travel a great distance at great expense on a very short timetable, hauling your attorney along with you–while the corporation threatening you has to exert only minimal effort and expense. This could make for the mother of all nuisance lawsuit runs.
The proposed laws would effectively give the music and movie industries a host of powers they have tried to abuse in the past but could not. Instead of having to threaten lawsuits in which people could defend themselves, they can now threaten immediate action which could cost the accused even more if they tried to defend themselves. No more “pay us $3000 or we’ll sue you” nonsense–now we’ll start hearing about threats where people are forced to cough up much more, once the amount of damage they can incur with only minimal expense has increased greatly.
Note also that these copyright holders are being given similar powers as law enforcement. I can’t be the only one concerned about this as a trend, can I?
The same copyright holders who routinely sue people for outrageous amounts based only upon an IP address, when it is clear the targets had nothing to do with the infringement? The same copyright holders who have made a habit of shaking down individuals for thousands of dollars apiece against the threat of costing ten times more to fight what may be specious allegations in a court of law–in effect, hundreds of thousands of sham nuisance lawsuits? The same copyright holders who then opened the door for innumerable scam artists to wield the same legal weapons as means for even greater shakedowns of the general public?
The same copyright holders who paid off politicians to get the DMCA, and made it the law of the land that stealing one song could incur fines of up to $150,000?
These same people are now paying money (let’s face it, our government was up for sale long before Citizen’s United) for legislation to get these new acts passed, ones where the copyright holders are given access to similar powers as law enforcement? Where they will be able to, with the same flimsy standards of “proof” that they have abused for years now, have any person they choose lose their web site and possibly their livelihood, have their access to advertising shut down, close off any methods of receiving income, and even force search engines to erase any sign that they exist? Even lead to their imprisonment?
Yes, yes, I know they will not start doing this to everyone. But from their past actions, it is clear they will cast a wide net and will not hesitate to ruin people who are clearly innocent in order to maintain the illusion that they don’t make mistakes because their system of collecting evidence is a sham. And yes, I know they are not becoming a new armed police force who can act independently and with impunity. But they are beginning to take on roles that traditionally have been wholly in the realm of public law enforcement.
This is what concerns me most: the precedent that is being set. The precedent that corporations are now active participants not only in creation of absurdly lopsided legislation (which gives then extraordinary awards for pedestrian crimes, the effects of said infringements being in fact very much debatable), but are also becoming active participants in the process of enforcement of these laws. Corporations as police, corporations which can act not just to sue people but to immediately erase their businesses in an age where many businesses are based on the web. And then, later, sort things out and maybe impoverish them or send them to jail for a few years. Based upon legislation they wrote to their advantage and then paid lawmakers to make into the law of the land.
Surely I cannot be the only one who sees this not only as an exercise in rabid plutocracy, but also as a trial balloon for future expansion?