As a writer who produces "intellectual property," I should be sympathetic with efforts of media businesses to protect the value of the materials they produce. The difference is a matter of scale. I do not have millions of dollars invested in production of "Haku Mo'olelo" and do not hope for millions of dollars in return on investment.
But the response in Congress to appeals of media companies is disturbing. The Stop Online Piracy Act in the U.S. House and Protect Intellectual Property Act in the U.S. Senate try to deal with a difficult issue, but push the United States government to a political precipice separating protection of property rights from censorship blocking public access to online information - with the government determining what is acceptable.
Control over intellectual property is a loaded issue for media businesses promoting public access, for a fee. Loss of control through widespread online copying means loss of potential revenues - whether the property copied is music, film/video, books, news stories or newspaper columns.
A decade ago, the music industry attempted to deal with unauthorized file sharing of recordings with complaints against individuals identified as having downloaded pirated material. The industry won in courts of law, but lost in courts of public opinion when the defendants were identified as students and other "regular" people with minimal criminal intent. The criminals were the technologically savvy who created the file-sharing programs, and while some were shut down, others just relocated to sites outside the reach of U.S. courts.
Both anti-piracy bills in Congress shift responsibility for controlling criminal enterprises to Internet service providers with provisions to require providers to cut off websites providing pirated intellectual property.
The effect mirrors efforts of the People's Republic of China to block access to websites the government sees as political threats, the issue that prompted Google to abandon the China market. There is an obvious difference. China's Internet censorship is geared to protecting the interests of the government. Proposals for U.S. Internet censorship are geared to protecting commercial interests.
But given the history of the Internet, the question is whether government should restrict access to information, whether or not the information is illegal or illegitimate (in the government's eyes). As designed, the Internet promotes free flow of information, including information that online users may consider illegal, inappropriate, slanderous, immoral and just plain untrue.
The effort to impose restrictions raises multiple issues:
* Serious technical concerns over effects on network security and systems that can support governments already imposing limits on its citizens. Designers and engineers developing Web systems warn of potential damage to network security, reliability and robustness - i.e., the ability of the Internet to bypass faults.
"Types of network errors and insecurity that we wrestle with today will become more widespread, and will affect sites other than those blacklisted by the American government," they said in a letter to Congress ("Internet engineers don't like PIPA and SOPA," Dec. 15, 2011, www.wired.com).
"We are alarmed that Congress is so close to mandating censorship-compliance as a design requirement for new Internet innovations. This can only damage the security of the network, and give authoritarian governments more power over what their citizens can read and publish."
* Unintended consequences in enforcement on peripheral players such as advertising networks, credit card companies and other payment processors and search engines that may link to a banned site.
* Government overreach. If Internet restrictions can protect film studios and music producers, it would be a smaller step to extend restrictions to other interests.
* Questionable effectiveness as perpetrators of illegal copying and file-sharing have alternatives for selling pirated and counterfeit products, such as "Notorious Markets" already tracked by the U.S. trade representative, including China's taobao.com ("Out-of-cycle review of notorious markets," Dec. 20, 2011, U.S. Department of the Treasury; www.ustr.gov/webfm_send/3215).
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.