Thursday, June 9, 2011

NYTimes Editorial: "If protecting intellectual property is important, so is protecting the Internet from overzealous enforcement."

Internet Piracy and How to Stop It

Online piracy is a huge business. A recent study found that Web sites offering pirated digital content or counterfeit goods, like illicit movie downloads or bootleg software, record 53 billion hits per year. That robs the industries that create and sell intellectual products of hundreds of billions of dollars.

The problem is particularly hard to crack because the villains are often in faraway countries. Bad apples can be difficult to pin down in the sea of Web sites, and pirates can evade countervailing measures as easily as tweaking the name of a Web site.

Commendably, the Senate Judiciary Committee is trying to bolster the government’s power to enforce intellectual property protections. Last month, the committee approved the Protect IP Act, which creates new tools to disrupt illegal online commerce.

The bill is not perfect. Its definition of wrongdoing is broad and could be abused by companies seeking to use the law to quickly hinder Web sites. Some proposed remedies could also unintentionally reduce the safety of the Internet. Senator Ron Wyden put a hold on the bill over these issues, which, he argued, could infringe on the right to free speech. The legislation is, therefore, in limbo, but it should be fixed, not discarded.

The bill defines infringing Web sites as those that have “no significant use other than engaging in, enabling, or facilitating” the illegal copying or distribution of copyrighted material in “substantially complete form” — entire movies or songs, not just snippets.

If the offender can’t be found to answer the accusation (a likely occurrence given that most Web sites targeted will be overseas), the government or a private party can seek an injunction from a judge to compel advertising networks and payment systems like MasterCard or PayPal to stop doing business with the site.

The government — but not private parties — can use the injunction to compel Internet service providers to redirect traffic by not translating a Web address into the numerical language that computers understand. And they could force search engines to stop linking to them.

The broadness of the definition is particularly worrisome because private companies are given a right to take action under the bill. In one notorious case, a record label demanded that YouTube take down a home video of a toddler jiggling in the kitchen to a tune by Prince, claiming it violated copyright law. Allowing firms to go after a Web site that “facilitates” intellectual property theft might encourage that kind of overreaching — and allow the government to black out a site.

Some of the remedies are problematic. A group of Internet safety experts cautioned that the procedure to redirect Internet traffic from offending Web sites would mimic what hackers do when they take over a domain. If it occurred on a large enough scale it could impair efforts to enhance the safety of the domain name system.

This kind of blocking is unlikely to be very effective. Users could reach offending Web sites simply by writing the numerical I.P. address in the navigator box, rather than the URL. The Web sites could distribute free plug-ins to translate addresses into numbers automatically.

The bill before the Senate is an important step toward making piracy less profitable. But it shouldn’t pass as is. If protecting intellectual property is important, so is protecting the Internet from overzealous enforcement.

Internet Piracy and How to Stop It -

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