Why the House is stacking the deck on Internet piracy

November 17, 2011: 2:30 PM ET

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a proposed bill to combat online piracy. Five proponents were invited to testify, compared to just one opponent. 

washingtonFORTUNE -- The use of the Internet to sell illicit goods -- from fake Cialis pills to pirated episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- is a real problem. But the way Congress is going about addressing that problem is so hamhanded that you can't blame some observers from spinning wild conspiracy theories.

Are legislators proposing a sweeping new intellectual property law "as the excuse to instigate control over the Internet?" asks Zack Whittaker at ZDNet, who goes on to warn that the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and its Senate version, Protect IP, might give us a censorship regime much like China's.

Well, no. This is much less sinister than that, though it is perhaps more insidious. This is just another case of Congress doing the bidding of powerful lobbyists -- in this case, Hollywood and the music industry, among others. It would be downright mundane if the legislation weren't so draconian and the rhetoric surrounding it weren't so transparently pandering.

Under the bill, search engines, ISPs, online advertising networks and payments processors would have to block "rogue" sites when ordered to do so by a judge. Along with tech companies, free-speech advocates have argued that this would lead to legitimate sites being blocked and could disrupt the Internet's underlying technology. The fear is that arbitrary decisions about what is and is not a "rogue" site could lead to chaos.

How clumsy are the bill's Congressional backers? On Wednesday a hearing conducted by the House Judiciary Committee included just one opponent of SOPA -- Google lawyer Katherine Oyama. And she seemed to be there not so much to testify as to serve as a proxy for all those evil Internet companies that want to profit from piracy.

That, at any rate, is how proponents of the bill would like the rest of us to view Google (GOOG) and its allies, which include Facebook, eBay (EBAY), Twitter, Yahoo (YHOO), AOL (AOL), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and others that have opposed the measure. Those public-interest groups, by the way, weren't invited to testify.

Internet companies worry that they could be held liable for the actions of people outside their control. Under the bill, Yahoo, for example, could be held liable if someone posted a copyrighted picture to that company's Flickr site. And Google and other search engines would in effect be responsible for the actions of basically everyone on the Internet

But logic either doesn't seem to matter much to SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and his 21 cosponsors, or else they simply can't get their minds around the problem. Opponents of the bill have noted that it could disrupt the domain-name system - the Internet's basic technical underpinning. But when witnesses who support the bill were asked about that issue, they said they were not qualified to speak to the technical aspects of it, even as they insisted that SOPA would present no such problem.

And in a bit of delicious symbolism, the committee's streaming video of the hearing basically didn't work.

The decision to invite just one dissenter -- Oyama -- to testify seemed designed not only to present a lopsided picture of the bill, but also to provide Smith and his allies with a punching bag. Both committee members and witnesses, such as the Motion Picture Association of America's Michael O'Leary, basically accused Google of working in league with content pirates. In his opening statement, Smith accused Google of  trying to "obstruct the Committee's consideration of bipartisan legislation." Did he mean, by opposing it?

O'Leary said that Google searches of movies often put pirate sites above legitimate sites in the search ranking. Amid all the talk of Google seeking to "profit" from piracy, the implication was that Google purposefully engineers the rankings to favor the former. O'Leary offered no evidence of this.

The battle here -- basically producers of movies and music versus technology and Internet companies -- is a longstanding one. To get an idea of why so many legislators have taken sides with the former group, one might simply compare how much each side spends on lobbying Congress.

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