April 20, 2014

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FOIA: When the Exemptions Swallow the Rule

I’ve been researching and writing over the last few years on privately ordered—what the government calls “non-regulatory”—approaches to online IP enforcement. The gist of this approach is that members of trade groups representing different types of online intermediaries (broadband providers, payment processors, ad networks, online pharmacies) agree in private contracts or less formal “voluntary best practices” documents to sanction or cut services to alleged IP infringers. I put quotes around “non-regulatory” not only because that’s the government’s word, but because the descriptor masks the fact that the government, at the behest of corporate rights owners, leans heavily on targeted intermediaries to negotiate and accept these agreements, all the while holding the threat of regulation over their heads. It has proven to be a very effective strategy. Many of the website blocking provisions in SOPA, which so memorably went down in flames of public outrage, have subsequently been implemented through these agreements, which belong to a broad category of regulatory practices that governance scholars call soft law.
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Congressman Issa’s “Internet Law Freeze”: Appealing but Impractical

This week, Congressman Darrell Issa released a draft bill that would prevent Congress and administrative agencies from creating any new internet-related laws, rules, or regulations. The Internet American Moratorium Act (IAMA) is a rhetorical stake in the ground for the notion that the government should “keep its hands off the internet.” In the wake of successful blockage of SOPA/PIPA legislation–which would have interfered with basic internet functionality in the name of combating content piracy–there is renewed energy in DC to stop ill-advised internet-related laws and rules. Issa has been quoted as saying that the government needs a, “cooling-off period to figure out a better way to create policy that impacts Internet users.” The relevant portion of the bill reads:

It is resolved in the House of Representatives and Senate that they shall not pass any new legislation for a period of 2 years from the date of enactment of this Act that would require individuals or corporations engaged in activities on the Internet to meet additional requirements or activities. After 90 days of passage of this Act no Department or Agency of the United States shall publish new rules or regulations, or finalize or otherwise enforce or give lawful effect to draft rules or regulations affecting the Internet until a period of at least 2 years from the enactment of this legislation has elapsed.

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This Week in Copyright – SOPA, Golan, and Megaupload

It has been an exceptionally busy week for copyright policy. We heard from all three branches of the US Federal Government in one way or another, while the citizens of the Internet flexed their muscles in response.

The most covered story of the week was the battle over SOPA and PIPA — the twin proposed bills that aimed to cut down on online piracy of copyrighted works by giving the government significant new authority to block access to allegedly infringing web sites. Other authors on this blog have pointed out how the bills show inconsistency in the copyright industry’s position on regulating the internet, could threaten free speech in repressive regimes, and may ultimately be found by the courts to violate fundamental constitutional liberties. On Wednesday some of the most popular sites on the web “went dark” or otherwise heightened awareness of the issue, and the surge citizen pleas to Congress caused a surprising reversal of momentum in the House and Senate. [Update: Both PIPA and SOPA have now been shelved.]

Buried in the day’s developments was the Judicial branch’s copyright contribution. In a highly anticipated decision, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Golan v. Holder. At issue was the question of whether or not Congress had the right to make a law that moved public domain works into copyright. Opponents of this law claimed that such a move violated not only the First Amendment, but also the purpose of the Copyright Clause — not to mention and age-old legal principles. The majority did not agree, and in a 6-2 vote it stated that individuals do not have any particular right that guarantees their use of the public domain, so they have no claim if Congress removes materials from it. Justices Breyer and Alito dissented, explaining that the ruling upset the delicate balance that the Founders had struck in affording limited monopoly rights to content creators. Nevertheless, the majority clearly demonstrated that the Judicial branch continues to trend toward greater expansion of copyright protection.

On Thursday, the Executive Branch weighed in. The Department of Justice announced that it had seized the domain name and servers of the popular file-sharing site Megaupload and had indicted several of the site’s operators. Although Megaupload claimed to be complying with US copyright law — in particular the notice-and-takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the feds claimed that the operators knew full well that the majority of the content on the site was infringing. Within minutes of the announcement, hacktivist group Anonymous had launched a denial-of-service attack on the Department of Justice web site, which remained unreachable for hours [Update: days].

Opponents of SOPA and PIPA welcomed the opportunity to reflect on why these developments demonstrated the shortcomings of the proposed bills. Some of them noted that the DoJ’s actions were done without any additional authority from harmful new bills, while others observed that such approaches to enforcement are ultimately ineffective — they observed that it was only a matter of time until Megaupload returned, or the many other file-sharing sites filled their shoes. By Thursday night, all four GOP presidential candidates had come out against SOPA.

It is hard to consolidate all of these developments into a coherent story of where things are headed. However, a few things seem clear. First, the SOPA/PIPA backlash is shows us that the internet can help citizens to rally a truly remarkable effort that penetrates the beltway bubble. Second, internet freedom is a compelling and accessible counter-narrative to copyright maximalism and government policing. Third, the courts continue to favor an approach to copyright that emphasizes property rights of those who have already created works over the free speech rights of those who may rely on those works to create new works. Fourth, the enforcement arms of the government are interested in taking ever-more-extreme measures to take down those accused of infringement, and are committing more taxpayer resources to a problem that continues to grow despite their approach.

But perhaps most significantly, this week shows us that there is just plain turmoil in this area. Policymakers are struggling to find good answers, and sometimes their “solutions” provoke far more criticism than praise.

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Don't Regulate the Internet. No, Wait. Regulate the Internet.

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.