WEDNESDAY’S ONLINE protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act mark a milestone in political activism by major Internet interests. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a message decrying the anti-piracy legislation now before Congress. Google covered the corporate logo on its home page with a black box, raising the possibility that it could be censored, and 7 million users signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition. With every passing hour, more congressional supporters of the legislation peeled away.
This was in part a victory for grass-roots activism. But it was also a classic Washington situation in which a big-money industry helped stoke public anxieties to further its own business interests.
Supported by Hollywood studios and many other traditional media firms, SOPA is a problematic piece of legislation with a worthy goal - to impede the ready availability of pirated content on the Internet. SOPA would lean on search engines and Internet payment systems to block access to offshore sites that distribute pirated material.
Whether the legislation would work is an open question; Internet pirates are nimble. Yet there’s nothing wrong with asking an Internet company to help prevent others from using its services to circulate illegal content. Technically, it’s possible: Google has complied with laws designed to thwart access to child pornography. And after Google took over YouTube, the company developed ways to combat the pirated material that once dominated the video site.
Tech companies clearly don’t want the broad legal responsibility - or expense - of having to police pirated material. But to raise that possibility is a far cry from imposing government censorship of the Internet. It’s just as easy to be self-righteous in a hoodie as a Brooks Brothers suit. Internet firms should use as much of their ingenuity to combat piracy as they have to thwarting SOPA.