When did SOPA stop beating its wife?

In Free Ride, I case a skeptical eye on Google’s contributions to universities like Stanford and Harvard, as well as organizations like Creative Commons and the New America Foundation. Reactions have varied: Journalists taught to follow the money see this as responsible reporting, while academics with fellowships at Google-funded institutions cried foul.The institutions, all of which I contacted for comments, objected as well.

You can decide for yourself if I have a point. When I did a Businessweek story on this issue, I got the following response from Stanford Law School: “As an institution, Stanford Law School does not take an advocacy position on issues, political or otherwise, and maintains a position of strict autonomy when it comes to academic research.” (The statement also contained information on its research policies.) And yet tomorrow the Stanford Law School’s Center for Information and Society will hold a panel on “What’s Wrong With SOPA?” that will “explore the potential impact of SOPA on Silicon Valley, the concerns that have been voiced by legal scholars, technology companies, entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists, and what the technology sector can do to make a difference in the outcome of this bill.” Panelists include two Stanford professors, a Google copyright counsel, a venture capitalist, a former Google attorney, two top executives at technology companies – and no one who seems to believe this bill isn’t a menace to society as we know it.

Personally, I think SOPA is too vague – I think most of the objections to the bill are hysterical, but it needs to be more specific. I’m sure that plenty of people who read this blog will disagree, and that’s fair enough – this is an important issue that deserves serious debate. But does online copyright infringement ever really receives serious debate at Stanford, where Google has donated generously to the Law School and the university’s dean sits on the company’s board? (There are two sides to a debate: One of the panelists, Fred von Lohmann, is an extremely smart lawyer and a nice guy but I’m not sure who he’d debate with.) Could they not find anyone to argue the other side?

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone who objects to SOPA favors piracy or anything like that: There are serious issues about which reasonable people can disagree. But how much disagreement will there be at a panel that seems structured to come off like a pep rally? If these lawyers have convictions and the arguments to back them up, shouldn’t they go out of their way to invite the other side? More important, isn’t this exactly the kind of issue that Stanford’s statement says it doesn’t take an advocacy position on?



14 thoughts on “When did SOPA stop beating its wife?

  1. It is precisely statements like “There are serious issues about which reasonable people can disagree.” that make me want to read everything you write, and investigate everyone you mention. Insightful, inspiring, and reasonable… y ou never disappoint. Thank you.

    Posted by Kat Caverly | December 6, 2011, 12:39 pm
  2. Sadly our (US) University system is little more than buisnesses selling overpriced diplomas anymore.

    Hmm… i wonder…
    Would the crowd they are pandering to be teenage kids* -and those looking for which college to attend next year?
    I’m sure “debates” like the Big Tech infomercial that they’ll be sponsering help attract young “me too” people, but does absolutely nothing for the public discourse.

    *whom have probably never paid for anything online in their life… half of which wouldn’t know that music/films/software actually cost money…

    Posted by James_J | December 7, 2011, 4:01 am
  3. As you say, those who object to SOPA may not “favor” piracy, but they seem more than willing to turn a blind eye when it happens. Especially when they can make money by ignoring it.

    As for Stanford not taking an “advocacy position on issues, political or otherwise,” the hypocrisy is all too apparent. Thankfully there are a small, but growing number of journalists, like yourself, who are starting to talk about this.

    SOPA is still being tweaked in congress and odds are, if it is not killed altogether, it will be gutless just like the DMCA. But at least the bill attempts addresses a huge problem for our culture: fair compensation for content creators and, more importantly, giving existing copyright laws the teeth they need to be effective. Right now, especially in the post DMCA world, copyright enforcement is almost nonexistent. What good are these laws if they are not backed up with real consequences ? This needs to be fixed and the tech companies that profit from the illegal content on their sites, need to stop pretending it is not really a problem (or their problem) and turn a blind eye. They profit from it, they need to help police it.

    Regardless of which side one might be on in this debate, it seems obvious that rogue sites with names, like The Pirate Bay, and serial infringers, like Grooveshark, need to be blocked (and in my opinion prosecuted) just like any company or individual that deals in stolen goods.

    As for Stanford, a well regarded place of higher learning, they should not so blatantly tip their hat to being in Google’s pocket by hosting a panel who’s very title has summarily passed judgment on a pending bill in congress… I agree, it is just sad.

    Posted by TMD | December 7, 2011, 6:42 am
    • Hmm, that’s a mighty big accusation to throw around. Can you be more specific? Who, objecting to SOPA, is turning a blind eye when infringement happens, and what do you think they could do to stop it? How much do you feel they profit from not stopping it, and how much do you think it would cost to stop it?

      As far as I can tell, most people objecting to SOPA have little or nothing to do with infringement at all. They just see a law requiring a lot of non-working, expensive, and potentially problematic measures to be taken by third and non-involved parties. I do agree with Robert though: the law as written is way too vague, which is part of why so many people are objecting. Currently a lot of perfectly legal sites could be shut down under certain interpretations of this law.

      I also agree that it would have been nice to finally see a proper debate on SOPA, with both proponents and opponents on one panel. Sadly, even the government doesn’t seem willing to hold a proper debate with an unstacked panel. Apparently neither does Stanford, which is indeed too bad.

      Posted by Pieter | December 7, 2011, 12:43 pm
  4. Who is turning a blind eye? Try Google, Grooveshark, early YouTube, Ars Technica, most ISPs and most internet ad sellers. Then of course there are the rogue sites themselves. If you read Robert’s book you’ll find more. And like Stanford, many of them have received money from Google. You also might want to check out this excellent blog by Ellen Seidle: http://popuppirates.com/

    Basically those who have built their business model around the failure of the DMCA will be against SOPA. As will those end users that feel they should be able to get whatever they want, without paying online. (Music, films, newspapers, etc.)

    Yes, the debate is a very good thing. But in my opinion, the failures of the DMCA should serve as a warning for any new legislation. Too many will be waiting to take advantage of any loophole to their advantage and profit. This is nothing new and only proves to illustrate that people behave badly whether online or off, and that the internet is not some “special” place where laws don’t apply.

    Posted by TMD | December 8, 2011, 11:46 pm
    • I have never heard that about Ars Technica. How so? Definitely agree on early YT and Grooveshark, of course. And I highly recommend Pop Up Pirates.

      Posted by roblevine1 | December 9, 2011, 7:35 am
    • As I asked: Please be more specific in stead of throwing around general accusations? How exactly does Google turning a blind eye to infringement, and what do you think they should do to prevent it? How much do you think they profit from it, and how much would it cost to prevent it?

      Companies looking for the edges of the law? What a shocker! That’s what practically every company does, including your beloved media companies. Their primary responsibility is towards their shareholders after all, and not to society. Is that something that should change? Perhaps, but the average American would probably scream “communism” if you tried to enforce that.

      Of course the internet is not a special place where laws don’t apply, but no-one would even consider the off-line equivalent of SOPA. That should make you think twice before speaking up in favour of this law. Copyright law is maybe even harder to enforce off-line than it is on-line, so the internet really isn’t that special in that regard.

      Leaning away from increased protection is of course not equivalent to turning a blind eye towards infringement. Even Robert agrees that the duration and scope of copyright has grown a bit out of bounds. I for one was quite angry over the recent extension of neighbouring rights in Europe, with every economic study showing that it was a bad idea.

      Posted by Pieter Hulshoff | December 10, 2011, 7:41 am
  5. The way I read Ars Technica, their stance seems to mostly lean away from any increased protection for content creators, and toward the red herring of “Free Speech” at the expense of copyright holders. But that may be just my take on them. That said, I do read them everyday.

    These bills are not just about media files, like music and film, but all sorts of piracy and, according to a recent article in the LA Times, have the support of “a broad coalition of industry and labor unions, including the AFL-CIO” and “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce”

    In the same article” Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, called the pending bills “thermonuclear war against the Internet”. Seriously? Thermonuclear war? Hyberpole (and scare tactics) at their finest…But what else would you expect from NetCoalition, a trade group that represents Internet and tech firms including Google, Yahoo, Amazon and EBay?

    I’m certainly not the only one that feels that many in the tech business are turning a “blind eye”. In a recent speech MPAA Chief Executive Christopher J. Dodd stated, “Some in the tech community believe that even if their website is being used to house stolen copyrighted content, that’s not their problem,”

    Robert, I heard you on KCRW’s “To the Point” and trust that if you believe these bills are too broad then they should be more specific. But I firmly believe that it is time for those companies that profit from illegal content being online, through ads, payment processing and as a way to increase their market share, that they need to now step up and start paying the price for that content. The right holders aren’t profiting from it, (in fact thanks to the DMCA it just costs us additional time and money) and the tech companies shouldn’t be profiting from it either .

    Posted by TMD | December 9, 2011, 7:05 pm
    • I find Ars Technica to be responsible and thought-provoking, although I obviously disagree with much of what they write. I think it’s important to differentiate between reasonable reporters with whom I disagree and, well, hired shills like Markham Erickson.
      As far as SOPA, specificity is important. But I certainly agree with your general point.

      Posted by roblevine1 | December 15, 2011, 9:41 am
  6. Perhaps Standford just takes its cues from our Congress, because if you pit this Stanford symposium against the recent hearings on Capitol Hill, then you finally come out with a real debate. I believe there was one lone wolf at the hearings, and she surprised the bunch, who thought that everyone in attendance was pro-SOPA. It’s interesting that SOPA might be dying anyway, what with new, streamlined legislation recently rolled-out. We’ll see. Either way, I’ll read everything I can from all sides.

    I’ve stopped expecting institutions to be non-biased; even not-for-profits need to raise money. And again, maybe these institutions are taking cues from the atmosphere of agency capture that seems to permeate the executive branch. Who knows. Either way, the devil’s in the details, and pro-SOPA numbers have been largely discredited lately. So any legislation based thereon is dead in the water anyway, as far as I’m concerned.

    Finally, exactly what do firemen have to do with piracy and why should we care? Should the Electronic Frontier Foundation start making official statements about firefighting, simply because they work in a building that can be burned down? 🙂

    Posted by word babey | December 13, 2011, 8:56 pm

    Stanford actualy REJECTED proposed speakers who would speak in favor of the bill, arguing that the title meant that they could only explore one side of the argument. Yet, somehow, we don’t see any panels being set up exploring the OTHER side of the argument. I’m sure that this kind of bias is not the image they hope to project, so it’s time to call them on it.

    From: Anthony Falzone [DELETED BY BLOGGER]
    Sent: Tuesday, December 06, 2011 03:47 PM
    To: [OMITTED]
    Cc: Barbara van Schewick
    Subject: Stanford SOPA event

    Hi [OMITTED] ,

    Thanks for your email about the SOPA event tomorrow night, and your offer. As you noted, this panel is focused on collecting and exploring the criticisms that have been leveled at SOPA by lawyers, entrepreneurs, investors and engineers. Given that and the number of panelists we have already, we’re not looking to add anyone to the panel for this event.

    It might be interesting to talk about a different event that is designed to engage the debate on each side, pro and con, especially in January as SOPA and PIPA progress through each chamber.

    In any event, we hope to see you at the panel tomorrow. If you’re there, please do say hello and please don’t hesitate to share your perspective in the question and answer session.

    Best regards,


    Anthony Falzone
    Stanford Law School
    559 Nathan Abbott Way
    Stanford, CA 94305-8610

    Posted by Anon | December 15, 2011, 12:16 am
    • In response to the last two comments, I have to say that it’s not unusual for Congressional hearings to be one-sided; while I don’t like this, it seems to be an inherent problem with the way they are set up. And, remember: Congress is trying to solve a problem, and many of the speakers talked bout that problem, rather than this particular proposed solution.

      The problem with Stanford is that universities are supposed to encourage serious discussion and this panel does the opposite. Also – and, to me, more troubling – it seems to violate the school’s stated policy. Worst of all, no one is really paying attention to this. Americans are well aware that money shapes politics but few are aware of how much it shapes academia.

      Posted by roblevine1 | December 15, 2011, 9:47 am
  8. I have to say that seeing the title of the panel, the first thing I thought of was a line of reasoning similar to that presented by Mr. Falzone. I mean, the last thing you want when discussing “what’s wrong with X” is someone to tell you that it isn’t.

    Stanford could easily maintain its professed neutrality by subsequently holding another panel along the lines of “what is right about SOPA” with a symetrically biased choice of panelists. I should note at this point that a mere “pro and con” event wouldn’t really cut it, since the scales have already been stacked in the favour of one side – at least as far as Stanford is concerned.

    Aside: It’s interesting to see an American academic institution advancing what is commonly known as a socialist debate. If you are unfamiliar with the joke, a socialist debate consists in the leader of the Party making a long speech and representatives of progressively lower echelons subsequently taking the floor to agree with what he said.

    Posted by Faza (TCM) | December 15, 2011, 5:29 pm

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