When Congress considered net neutrality legislation in the form of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 (H.R. 5353), representatives of corporate copyright owners weighed in to oppose government regulation of the Internet. They feared that such regulation might inhibit their private efforts to convince ISPs to help them enforce copyrights online through various forms of broadband traffic management (e.g., filtering and bandwidth shaping). “Our view,” the RIAA’s Mitch Bainwol testified at a Congressional hearing, “is that the marketplace is generally a better mechanism than regulation for addressing such complex issues as how to address online piracy, and we believe the marketplace should be given the chance to succeed.” And the marketplace presumably did succeed, at least from the RIAA’s point of view, when ISPs and corporate rights owners entered into a Memorandum of Understanding last summer to implement a standardized, six-strikes graduated response protocol for curbing domestic illegal P2P file sharing. Chalk one up for the market.
What, then, should we make of the RIAA’s full-throated support for the Senate’s pending PROTECT IP Act (S. 968) and its companion bill in the House, SOPA (H.R. 3261)? PROTECT IP and SOPA are bills that would regulate the technical workings of the Internet by requiring operators of domain name servers to block user access to “rogue websites”—defined in PROTECT IP as sites “dedicated to infringing activities”—by preventing the domain names for those sites from resolving to their corresponding IP addresses. In a recent RIAA press release on PROTECT IP, the RIAA’s Bainwol praised the draft legislation, asserting the need for—you guessed it—new government regulation of the Internet: “[C]urrent laws have not kept pace with criminal enterprises that set up rogue websites overseas to escape accountability.” So much, I guess, for giving the marketplace the chance to succeed.
As the Social Science Research Council’s groundbreaking 2011 report on global piracy concluded, the marketplace could succeed in addressing the problem of piracy beyond U.S. borders if corporate copyright owners were willing to address global disparities in the accessibility of legal digital goods. As the authors explain, “[t]he flood of legal media goods available in high-income countries over the past two decades has been a trickle in most parts of the world.” Looking at the statistics on piracy in the developing world from the consumption side rather than the production side, the SSRC authors assert that what developing markets want and need are “price and service innovations” that have already been rolled out in the developed world. Who is in a better position to deliver such innovations, through the global marketplace, than the owners of copyrights in digital entertainment and information goods? Why not give the marketplace another chance to succeed, particularly when the alternative presented is a radical policy intrusion into the fundamental operation of the Internet?
The RIAA’s political strategy in the war on piracy has been alternately to oppose and support government regulation of the Internet, depending on what’s expedient. I wonder if rights owners and the trade groups that represent them experience any sense of cognitive dissonance when they advocate against something at one moment and for it a little while later—to the same audience, on the same issue.