Angry Americans defeat censorship

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 23, 2012 06:24 pm

We were pleased to watch last week as the hot breath of Americans, angry over the possible hobbling of the free-ranging Internet, prevailed over the chill wind of censorship.

A pair of bills, one in the U.S. Senate and one in the House of Representatives, seem destined for failure.

These bills, according to supporters, have the laudable goal of preventing websites from illegally profiting from copyrighted material such as music and movies.

But critics, chief among them Oregon’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, contend the bills — known best by their initials, PIPA and SOPA — would do a lot more than that.

The problem, opponents say, is that PIPA or SOPA would make websites such as YouTube and Facebook, which allow users to post content, legally responsible for posts that contain copyrighted material.

Wyden, along with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has drafted an alternative bill. Their Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act), the legislators say, would protect intellectual property without imposing restrictions that constitute, in effect, censorship.

The OPEN Act is a far better option than the two other bills, largely because it more specifically targets the most egregious copyright thieves, many of them based outside the U.S.

We hope, though, that in practice the Issa-Wyden legislation delivers what it promises: real protection for the owners of copyrighted material.

Congress would be remiss if, in trying to uphold Americans’ free speech rights, it neglected those who have legally protected their own creations.

The furor over SOPA and PIPA has, it seems to us, led to some slight exaggerations as to what’s at stake.

If you believe some of the more hysterical claims, those bills threaten the First Amendment itself.

Yet even if PIPA or SOPA would sound the death knell for YouTube, that hardly constitutes the end of the Internet as a bastion of free expression.

Let’s say there are two bloggers. One thinks President Obama is the worst president in U.S. history, the other argues that Mitt Romney, were he elected to replace Obama, would lead the country to disaster.

There’s no reason to believe that any of the copyright-protection bills — including PIPA and SOPA — would dissuade either hypothetical blogger from posting his opinion, ad nauseum.

Conspiracy theories aside, the debate over copyright infringement online has proven, yet again, that ordinary Americans can exert considerable clout when they’re sufficiently aroused.

That power, combined with savvy political leadership from the likes of Wyden, can curtail the government’s more draconian schemes.

It’s worth remembering, though, that expressing your opinion that something’s rotten in Salem or Washington, D.C., rarely requires the theft of a popular pop song or movie.