Constraining the Internet's freedom is necessary to stop online piracy

A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

Congress is proposing to legislate against Internet piracy with the now-on-hold Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), but the Obama administration is concerned that such legislation would reduce "freedom of expression," undermine the Internet, and "inhibit innovation." But given all the pirated material advertised and available over the Web, perhaps some chilling of the Internet is warranted.

The Internet, like nearly most new technologies, comes with good--but also with evil. The copying and distribution of copyrighted material over the Internet is most certainly one of these evils--and is known as Internet piracy. The materials could be music, movies, or books. The overwhelming amounts of spam and the risks of identity theft are some other evils.

I know personally about Internet piracy. One of my copyrighted textbooks was copied and made available over the Internet by a German technical university. As a result of this, the book is now available at other websites--and neither my publisher nor I receive royalties and income.

People find out about pirated material from search engines, such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Bing. The proposed legislation would hold these search sites responsible for not listing these sites once they have been informed of the pirated material. Not surprisingly, these search sites do not want to assume the role of policing the Internet.

Technology should not be allowed to confuse basic legal principles. Suppose someone brings stolen property to a pawnshop, and the pawnshop takes it not knowing that the property was stolen. Later the pawnshop is informed that the property was stolen. The pawnshop then has a responsibility not to sell the property--and also return it to its rightful owner or to the authorities. Search engines are like pawnshops. Once they have been informed that they are enabling access to stolen material, they have a responsibility to stop doing so.

Google claims to "do no harm" and also frequently reminds us of its innovative and technological prowess. I would claim that therefore the likes of Google should be able to innovatively determine how to implement their responsibilities to avoid enabling access to, and hence the distribution of stolen property. This is not censorship, but the prevention of theft and piracy. It is time for the liberal freedom of the Internet to be constrained to prevent such evils.

A. Michael Noll is professor emeritus of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. During the early 1970s he served on the White House Science Advisor's staff dealing with issues involving computer security and privacy.