I really can’t understand why any progressive would support PROTECT-IP/SOPA, the sprawling Internet censorship bill advancing quickly through Congress. Here’s another reason the proposed law, which allows “the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial,” should be opposed.
A leaked series of Citigroup memos about the benefit of the world turning towards economic feudalism (the so-called Plutonomy Memos), once known mostly to lefty blogs, gained some notoriety after Michael Moore featured them in his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story. Here’s the clip
As you can imagine, the memos resurfaced in the last few months with the rise of Occupy Wall Street.
But recently, Citigroup’s lawyers have sent takedown letters to blogs and websites that have featured the memos. Using the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, Citigroup’s attorneys have successfully pressured Scribd and other document sharing websites to scrub the pdf from the web (here’s an example). Just a few weeks ago, they sent a takedown request to John Schmitt’s blog, demanding that he scrub a copy of the Citigroup Plutonomy memo from his site (view a copy of the letter here, a screenshot below):
Clearly, this is a brazen abuse of copyright law to suppress legitimate journalism. The documents were already widely leaked, and the bloggers writing about them were doing so under conditions which I think most would consider “fair use.” The bareknuckle tactics by Citigroup’s attorneys show the power of the laws already on the books, like the DMCA, which allows copyright holders to demand that user-submitted content websites like Scribd and Blogspot.com remove copyrighted material. For one thing, its not even clear if the Plutonomy Memos constitute protected copyright material. I’m obviously not a lawyer, but its hard to see the expressive value of the memos. It’s a messed up situation, where just the threat of litigation has already chilled speech, but it could get much, much worse.
If SOPA/PROTECT-IP passes, then copyright holders like Citigroup will gain the ability to shut down entire websites without a court order, a power well beyond the DMCA and other digital copyright laws. That means independent blogs, media outlets, etc., will become targets for destruction when they publish allegedly copyrighted whistleblower documents and other leaked memos. Independent media will be delisted from search engines and their domains could be blocked. SOPA/PROTECT-IP is an assault on journalism (see this breakdown by Jessica Roy at Mediabistro), but the latest moves by Citigroup only reinforce the danger.
This week, the House will begin to mark-up the bill.
Back when I worked at ThinkProgress, I repeatedly broke stories using leaked memos and other internal documents from powerful corporations. Needless to say, ThinkProgress routinely posts and links to content that could arguably be considered copyrighted material or associated with “pirate” websites (like Wikileaks or the Piratebay). If SOPA/PROTECT-IP is signed into law, it’s not too extreme to suggest that even ThinkProgress or the blog’s advertisers could fall into the crosshairs of copyright trolls.
Yet on Tuesday, the MPAA is hosting somewhat of a SOPA/PROTECT-IP-friendly event with ThinkProgress. The event is billed as a discussion on “innovation.” The MPAA, however, once fought to ban VCR’s as a terrible technological threat to the movie industry. Similarly, the RIAA under Hilary Rosen once filed a lawsuit attempting to block MP3 players from entering the US consumer market. I could go on; but, it’s worth debunking the many silly arguments of the pro-SOPA/PROTECT-IP lobby, which represents mostly Hollywood and software executives, in another post.
The MPAA chief lobbyist Chris Dodd, who last week favorably compared China’s censorship regime to the legislation he is now promoting, will be speaking at the event.
Dodd sponsored the law in 1995 that makes it virtually impossible to sue banks like Citigroup for investor fraud. I guess now he’ll explain to the world why progressives should support a law that may make it virtually impossible to report on leaked Citigroup documents.
It will be interesting to see how Dodd will justify SOPA/PROTECT-IP, a law that provides overriding IP protection at the expensive of free speech.