The other dark prospect lurking among the legislation's many unintended consequences is that it could become a playbook for how national governments may manipulate critical aspects of the Internet to enforce local laws. Nothing limits the techniques laid out in these bills to antipiracy efforts. Congress should not turn a blind eye to the potential of other governments to use the approaches suggested in these bills to further whatever social policies they please, such as restricting unflattering portrayals of government officials or squashing political dissent.
If this plays out, we risk further balkanizing the Internet and subverting its core values of openness, innovation and free expression. That is an outcome at odds with stated U.S. foreign policy to encourage the growth of a single, vibrant, unimpeded global Internet. The United States cannot stand on the world stage and with a straight face urge other governments to stop blocking parts of the Internet when bills like SOPA and PIPA propose do the same thing in the name of copyright enforcement.
Finding a Better Way
To be clear, protecting intellectual property online is a worthy and desirable goal. But in its zeal to attack the widespread problem, Congress must realize that the current proposals carry far too many unintended consequences -- both at home and abroad. It must go back to the drawing board to craft an approach that doesn't result in so much collateral damage.
What would that look like? There is no silver bullet, but a substantial consensus has emerged that a narrowly targeted "follow the money" approach could make a real difference. The idea would be to carefully identify (with appropriate due process) true "bad actors" that are brazenly fostering large-scale piracy. Then, starve those bad actors of the income they need for bandwidth and servers, by cutting them off from global financial and advertising networks.
So long as Congress remains stubbornly fixed on its current course, however, expect the controversy to go on. Opponents continue to flood Congress with calls; the technology industry takes out full-page newspaper ads; and new critics write letters and articles by the day. Congress needs to heed the message.
Leslie Harris is President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.