Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Obama Likes the Internet, So He’ll Probably Veto SOPA if It Gets That Far

Unless there’s a really big shift in sentiment among members of Congress on both sides of the ideological aisle, some version of the Stop Online Piracy Act is going to be passed by Congress sometime in 2012.

That means the legislation is going to wind up on President Barack Obama’s desk, requiring his signature, which would make it law; or his veto, which would effectively kill it. That makes it pretty much the first significant bit of technology policy he will face in the new year.

What’s not entirely clear is which way Obama is likely to decide. So far, the administration hasn’t sent any signals, one way or the other, on either SOPA or its companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

But there are some key clues.

SOPA and PIPA are proposed laws that would, among other things, give media companies significant new tools to police pirated online content that appears on Web sites hosted outside of U.S. borders. It would also require U.S. companies that link or do business with them in the normal course of operations — sites such as Google, Yahoo and eBay’s PayPal — to cease doing so.

For instance, Google might be forced by the courts or U.S. law enforcement agencies to stop providing search links to BitTorrent sites that host pirated copies of major motion pictures and television shows. It could go even further than that, by stopping U.S.-based Internet-service companies from allowing users to access any overseas site carrying pirated content.

Critics of the legislation charge that the two bills have gone overboard to protect content. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has said it would “criminalize intermediaries.” Other companies, including Yahoo and Facebook, have claimed it could stifle innovation.

The problem the White House will face is that both bills appear to have a broad base of support in Congress. And proponents, such as the House Judiciary Chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, are pushing the bill as a means of protecting American jobs by ensuring that profits from U.S.-produced intellectual property flows to the companies that created it.

But there are a few tea leaves indicating where the president might come down on this issue. For one thing, the administration has been pretty clear from the beginning that it supports an open Internet; not vetoing the bill now would be a major policy shift.

And, during 2011, the power of the Internet as a force for social change has been demonstrated throughout the Middle East: Dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are gone, and others are under threat by movements that have been largely organized and coordinated on Facebook and Twitter.

Just last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, made an interesting comment that perhaps captures the nuance of the Obama administration’s position.

As the Hill noted, while sympathetic to the problem countries and companies face in combating the theft of intellectual property, Clinton said that governments can do so “without compromising the global network, its dynamism or our principles.”

The SOPA bill, in particular, would also criminalize contributing to or distributing technology that is meant to circumvent actions that block access to such content. That would put the government at odds with a project it has funded, the Onion Router (a.k.a. TOR), created by U.S. Naval Researchers and a nonprofit organization.

Under SOPA, the problem might be that people in more repressive countries, like China, can use TOR to anonymize traffic and thus bypass technical measures that prevent the free flow of information. The language in the bill is vague enough that TOR could be made illegal.

Then there’s also Obama’s promise to support a free and open Internet generally, which has been a major bedrock of his technology and Internet policy agenda. Early last month, Obama promised to veto a Congressional resolution that would overturn net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission put in place earlier this year, and which was to take effect on Nov. 20. (The Senate saved him the trouble by voting against the resolution.)

Therefore, Obama’s stance on the issue perhaps hints at an aversion to any significant changes in the status quo of the Internet, which suggests he would likely veto any version of SOPA or PIPA that reaches his desk.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work