SOPA and PIPA for Non-Techies

A guide to understanding how the two anti-piracy bills wonâ??t do anything but end the Internetâ??s openness

Following the Jan. 18 Internet blackout demonstrations against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), supporters of the two bills, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America, are preparing a counteroffensive.

Their counterargument will rest on two claims – that opponents of SOPA and PIPA don’t care about counterfeiting and intellectual property theft and that the intent of SOPA and PIPA is not to “censor the Internet.”

Since this post is designed for non-techies, I’m going to avoid jargon like “DNS redirecting,” and “Chinese firewall,” and instead I’m going to explain the logic of SOPA and PIPA with this syllogism.

Premise 1: Bank robbery is against the law.
Premise 2: Bank robberies extract a high social cost, so we want to prevent bank robberies
Premise 3: Bank robbers use public streets to travel to banks and escape with their loot
Conclusion: The best way to prevent bank robberies is to close all the streets

This is the basic logic behind SOPA and PIPA. The flaw, of course, is that in the end, the social cost of closing all the public streets is higher than the social cost of the bank robberies it aims to prevent. While thieves can’t get to banks, ordinary citizens can’t get to work, school or the grocery store. Defenders of this idea might say their intention isn’t to infringe on freedom of movement, but in the end that’s the effect their “solution” has.

The same goes for SOPA and PIPA. The intention is to stop online piracy. The effect will be to infringe on Internet speech because it makes ordinary websites legally liable for any link, inadvertent or not, they provide to a so-called “rogue” site. If the law is enacted, any good attorney will advise a website owner to shut down any comments section, advertising arrangement or integrated search engine that could be used to deliver a link to a website where alleged pirated content or merchandise can be found. So much for the interactive communication, immediate information integration, and community-building that defines the Internet today.

SOPA and PIPA are bad not because they target counterfeiting and piracy. They are bad bills because they try to do it by closing the information highway.

SOPA and PIPA are the latest and most egregious example of an alarming political trend: instead of strengthening enforcement against actual crimes, lawmakers instead criminalize everyday activities that by nature lend indirect support. Rather than demanding police build a case against real money-launderers, Louisiana lawmakers made cash transactions illegal. Instead of finding a drunk driver guilty, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the defendant could sue the bar owner who sold him the drinks. Congress couldn’t muster the political will to pass a law against Internet poker, so it made it illegal for a licensed bank to transfer funds to a licensed gambling site.

SOPA and PIPA try to fight piracy by criminalizing aspects of the Internet service infrastructure. This infrastructure ensures the functionality of huge search engines and social networks down to the comments section of the smallest websites, and, yes, it can be abused by counterfeiting and pirating sites-and many other parties with criminal intent. However, this same infrastructure is vital to accessibility, openness and free exchange on the Internet. Like closing the streets to prevent bank robberies, the cost of curtailing the Internet’s ability to create free, open communities is much higher than the cost of piracy it seeks to stop. SOPA and PIPA are illogical, intrusive and counterproductive bills that should be scrapped.

Steven Titch is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.