Published on 01/25/12
Last week, several Internet sites protested against two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, that would take a heavy-handed approach to preventing copyright infringement.
Though the movement was led by left-leaning technology sites, the SOPA/PIPA kerfuffle has the potential to demonstrate why conservative principles are important.
The problem with SOPA and PIPA was their broad scope. The bills went beyond primary infringers to impose criminal penalties on search engines and service providers that linked to infringing domain names.
The threatened censorship of the Internet -- hundreds of innocent sites could be blocked because of alleged infringement by a single blog -- led many sites to go "dark" for a day to protest SOPA's drastic consequences.
It was certainly amusing to watch thousands of teenagers take to Twitter to complain, profanely, that in the absence of Wikipedia and other sites, they had no place to go to plagiarize their homework assignments.
But, more importantly, several senators and representatives, including a number of former supporters of the legislation, announced their opposition.
Hollywood, which has predicted catastrophic consequences from piracy since the now-obsolete VCR became commonplace decades ago, is outraged and continues to support the legislation -- but it now seems clear that SOPA and PIPA will not become law without substantial modifications.
In the meantime, some observations:
First, we should be thankful: Legislative "gridlock" is a feature, not a bug, of our constitutional system. We often see parties in power complain how hard it is to get legislation passed, but the number of bottlenecks in the system means that legislation is considerably less likely to pass without consensus.
Without these bottlenecks, special interests would find it far easier to ram through bad legislation like SOPA. The deliberate pace of legislation gave time for Internet opponents to mobilize.
Second, both bills demonstrate the problem of overcriminalization. All too often, a special interest asks Congress to "fix" a problem by threatening to send more people to prison.
When criminal law goes beyond punishing intentional, violent and fraudulent behavior to ensnare innocent business people guilty only of running afoul of complex and technical regulations, the chilling effect on free enterprise and job creation can be tremendous.
Bloggers had fun pointing out the number of instances where SOPA supporters were violating the proposed law, but millions of Americans already unknowingly violate hundreds of other laws on the books.
When everyone is a criminal, federal prosecutors have the awesome power to pick and choose who will have their lives ruined. The possibility of politically motivated prosecutions is a severe danger to liberty.
Third, Congress passes bills all the time without knowing what's in them, each time with dramatic unintended consequences. Bloggers were outraged at a congressional hearing where committee members had no clue about the damage SOPA was going to do to the Internet.
Further, they seemed to care very little about the effect of their ignorance. But this ignorance extends far beyond the Internet. Limited-government conservatives oppose bad legislation like Dodd-Frank and Obamacare because of the unintended consequences and adverse effects of government meddling in the market.
Finally, the successful opposition to SOPA demonstrates the importance of corporate free speech. It has become trendy on the left to assert after Citizens United that corporations are not people, and thus have no free-speech rights; there's even a constitutional amendment to that effect pending.
One wonders how far that argument goes: Do corporations have no Third Amendment rights, either, allowing the government to quarter troops at the Ritz? Corporate free speech made a decisive difference in the SOPA/PIPA debate. The media, generally SOPA supporters, were unwilling to cover the issue until corporations like Google and Wikipedia forced them to pay attention. The Left should re-evaluate its attempt to limit political speech.
The near-catastrophic passage of SOPA demonstrates the power of limited-government principles. Conservatives should use it as a teaching moment.