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SOPA: Anti-Piracy or Censorship? Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales vs. Copyright Alliance’s Sandra Aistars

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Congressional support for a pair of anti-piracy bills is weakening after Wednesday’s historic online protest in which thousands of websites went dark for 24 hours. Hollywood film studios, music publishers and major broadcasters support the anti-piracy legislation, saying it aims to stop the piracy of copyrighted material over the internet on websites based outside the United States. “We’re talking about sites that are operated and dedicated to piracy and that are really preventing individual creators across the country from having an economic livelihood from their creative pursuits,” says Sandra Aistars, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, whose members include the Motion Picture Association of America, NBCUniversal, Time Warner, Viacom, ASCAP and BMI. But critics say the bills could profoundly change the internet by stifling innovation and investment, hallmarks of the free, open internet. “Wikipedia could be defined as a search engine under these [bills],” says Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. “That would mean that it would be illegal for Wikipedia to link to a site, even if we’re writing an encyclopedia article explaining to the public what is The Pirate Bay, what is going on here, and we want to send you there so you can go and take a look for yourself. That would become illegal. This is outrageous, and it’s just not acceptable under the First Amendment.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressional support for a pair of Hollywood-backed anti-piracy bills is weakening after a historic online protest Wednesday. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia shut down the English version of its website for 24 hours to protest the bills. Thousands of other sites did the same. Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, covered the Google icon on its home page with a black box. Google also urged visitors to sign an online petition asking Congress to reject the bills.

The House bill is called SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, while the Senate bill is PIPA, the Protect IP Act. The Hollywood film studios, music publishers and major broadcasters like NBC and Viacom have supported the anti-piracy legislation, which ostensibly aims to stop the piracy of copyrighted material over the internet on websites based outside the United States. But critics say the bills would profoundly change the internet by stifling innovation and investment, hallmarks of the free, open internet.

In Washington, at least eight lawmakers announced Wednesday they can no longer support the Senate legislation, including co-sponsors Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Orrin Hatch of Utah, as well as Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland.

AMY GOODMAN: Wednesday’s action against the anti-piracy bills are being described as the largest online protest in the history of the internet. But there were also street protests yesterday against the legislation. In New York, hundreds of people gathered outside the Manhattan offices of Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, co-sponsors of the Senate bill. Andrew Rasiej, chair of the New York Tech Meetup, helped organize the protest.

ANDREW RASIEJ: I used to joke that politicians don’t know the difference between a server and a waiter. But in regards to PIPA and SOPA, their ignorance is no joke. In an effort to combat piracy, which we all would like to minimize, if not outright eliminate, Congress, at the behest of moneyed special interests representing copyright-holding industries, is proposing to redesign the internet in a way that is detrimental to our industry and to the open web. If they are successful, they will not only stifle innovation and investment in emerging technology companies in New York and elsewhere, they will irrevocably damage the architecture of the internet so as to embolden censorship around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Other protesters in New York compared the bills to actions taken by China and Iran to censor the web.

IAN BASSIN: I think it sends the wrong signal to give the government the ability to shut down websites. The web should be a free medium that promotes democracy around the world. When America is trying to convince China and Iran that they shouldn’t be shutting down the web, we shouldn’t be setting a bad example.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Jimmy Wales is an internet entrepreneur, best known as the co-founder and promoter of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia. He’s joining us from a studio in London. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Sandra Aistars, executive director of the Copyright Alliance. She is former vice president and associate general counsel at Time Warner Inc. Board members of the Copyright Alliance include the Motion Picture Association of America, NBCUniversal, Time Warner, Viacom, ASCAP and BMI.

We’re going to begin with Sandra in Washington. Why do you think these bills are so important?

SANDRA AISTARS: Thank you, Amy, first of all, for having me on the show. I’m really pleased that you’re taking the time to listen to supporters of the bill as well as to opponents of the bill, because there’s a lot of information about the bills out there that I’ve been hearing that understandably would be scary to anybody as to what the bills do. So, thanks for this opportunity.

As to why the bills are so incredibly important, along with the other board members that you’ve mentioned of the Copyright Alliance, I represent thousands upon thousands of individual artists who live all across America. There are about 11 million artists in the United States, and they depend on the internet to network, to market, to fundraise for their work, to connect with their fans, to distribute their work, and basically to make a living. Their ability to do so effectively is being compromised by the fact that there are criminal websites offshore that are dedicated solely to the purpose of distributing counterfeit goods and copyrighted goods for profit with no return to those creators. We’re not talking about the Wikipedias, we’re not talking about Reddit, we’re not talking about Twitter, or any of those very useful social media tools that we all rely on, when we talk about rogue sites that the bill targets. We’re talking about sites that are operated and dedicated to piracy and that are really preventing individual creators across the country from having an economic livelihood from their creative pursuits.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, you felt that these bills were such a threat that you shut down your website. Why?

JIMMY WALES: Well, these bills are very badly written. It’s all well and good to talk about the need to find some solutions to criminal behavior online. It’s not OK to set up a censorship regime in response to that. It’s not OK to have processes in place that would incentivize the credit card companies to cut off legitimate businesses upon a mere complaint. We need to go back to the drawing board and rethink the entire issue, where we put freedom of speech front and center.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Sandra?

SANDRA AISTARS: I agree that freedom of speech and First Amendment issues have to be front and center in all of these discussions, and they have been. The bills have nothing to do with censorship, any more than prosecuting somebody for shoplifting has something to do with censorship. If you’re a site that is criminally distributing copyrighted works or counterfeit goods online to U.S. consumers, you’re in no—you’re not committing free speech, you’re not furthering political discussions, you’re committing theft.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Sandra, companies like Google—


JUAN GONZALEZ: If I can just ask Sandra—companies like Google insist that they already are involved in voluntary policing of their sites and respond pretty rapidly to requests from industry.

SANDRA AISTARS: Right. Google is talking about its programs that are in place to deal with individual instances of infringing content that are placed, for instance, on YouTube by a user. These bills don’t address that issue whatsoever. First of all, they don’t deal with U.S.-based sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, or any other user-generated content site in the United States. They also don’t impose any duty to monitor those sites or to do anything further than what a legitimate site like YouTube already does under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And there are actually provisions in the bill that specifically make that clear and direct courts not to make alterations to copyright law, trademark law or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when they enforce these bills. So, these bills are dealing with a totally different problem, which are rogue criminal websites that exist entirely and are operated and dedicated to the purpose of infringing copyright. They’re not legitimate sites like Wikipedia, which police their activities themselves. They are sites that are operated often by criminal elements that are truly dedicated to distributing copyrighted goods without authorization and with no other legitimate purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy Wales, if you could respond to that and also talk about how you feel Wikipedia would be affected if this—these bills passed.

JIMMY WALES: So, what has been just said here is just simply not true. If you look at the content of these bills, they are very clearly about censorship. The Senate version has provisions to implement DNS blocking of overseas websites, and the bills contain provisions that would make it illegal for Google to link to, for example, The Pirated Bay. That’s pure and simple censorship of Google, and there’s no way around it. Those are the measures that we’re protesting. Those are the things that are wrong.

If you want to go up against those sites, if you want to do something about those sites, you need to go and lobby in those countries and get their laws changed so that they reflect the same kind of situation which you’ve accepted is a valid way of doing things, as we do inside the U.S. with the takedown and notice provisions and all the things that have worked so well for 10 years.

In terms of how this would affect Wikipedia, it affects us in several different ways. The definitions are so broad, Wikipedia could be defined as a search engine under these things, and then that would mean that it would be illegal for Wikipedia to link to a site, even if we’re writing an encyclopedia article explaining to the public what is The Pirate Bay, what is going on here, and we want to send you there so you can go and take a look for yourself. That would become illegal. This is outrageous, and it’s just not acceptable under the First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Jimmy Wales, you’re having an enormous effect. I mean, the internet—thousands of sites going dark yesterday is certainly the internet that roared. And you even have the co-sponsors of the bill, like the conservative Florida Republican senator, Rubio, backing off. One congressman, one senator after another is pulling away from support. How did this legislation get written? And what are your plans for further protest?

JIMMY WALES: Well, so, my view is that further protest isn’t really right. We’ve got the attention of Congress. They realize that they can’t just listen to Hollywood. They need to listen to the users of the internet. They need to listen to their voters. The thing to do now is to go back, and all of the things that our friend from ASCAP was just talking about, in terms of thinking about these rogue sites, thinking about people who are really engaged in economic profiteering off of other people’s work in an inappropriate, illegal way, let’s target that activity. Let’s not target Wikipedia, Google. Let’s not set up a DNS censorship regime.

So, in my view, I think there is a way forward. I think what’s going to happen now, we’ve got, so far, 35 senators, which is up from five before the protest, who have come out against the bill. I think we can essentially say it’s a dead letter, these bills aren’t going to go anywhere. My view is, we shouldn’t just simply gloat and sit here and say, “Ah, hooray, we won.” We should actually be constructive now. We should say, “OK, look, we do want to come back,” and we want to say, “Look, if there are legitimate problems, let’s analyze those. Let’s come up with solutions that work for everybody.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sandra Aistars, what about that? Because you’ve called the protest a publicity stunt and that it’s spreading some irresponsible claims. Do you think that this protest, the range of it and the extensive nature of it, is calling for a re-examination of these bills?

SANDRA AISTARS: Well, I think the bills are being re-examined and have been re-examined. That’s part of the normal legislative drafting process. I think what happened yesterday was—you know, was interesting. It was interesting to me personally that Wikipedia took itself online in an act of self-censorship, you know, to protest the bills. But I think what needs to happen in any legislative process is that people have to look at what the bills actually say. Mr. Wales, in talking about the provisions of the bills, is referring to a bill that no longer exists and, frankly, didn’t exist in the form that he suggests it did to begin with. I’d direct folks to look at the manager’s amendment to the Stop Online Piracy Act, which is available on the House Judiciary Committee website, and to look at the provisions of that bill. I’d also note that the legislative process is, as I said, you know, lengthy, and debate occurs around provisions of any bill. And that’s occurring now and has been occurring now. It’s been—over the last couple of days, there have been various modifications that have been made in addition to those that were proposed in the manager’s amendments to SOPA to address some of the concerns about DNS blocking. So both Senator Leahy and Congressman Smith have suggested that they would remove all of the DNS provisions from the bill and move forward with the provisions that are less controversial.

On DNS blocking and whether it’s appropriate to use or not to use, I’d also point people to the fact that our trading partners in Europe, in the United Kingdom, in various E.U. countries, are already implementing DNS blocking to block The Pirate Bay. So, the specific types of activities that Mr. Wales was suggesting need to occur and that we should be pursuing abroad are in fact being pursued abroad. And what we’re looking for is help from domestic sites, under this legislation, to collaborate with the attorney general when a site is declared to be dedicated to infringement by a federal district court and to stop doing business with those sites.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy Wales, I know you have to go off to Skye TV in the same building just a—but a quick question.


AMY GOODMAN: Your response to Sandra Aistars? And also, the power of the companies that she represents, like MPAA? Sandra Aistars just mentioned, for example, Senator Leahy, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, liberal senator from Vermont, colleague of Christopher Dodd from Connecticut, who retired and became head of the MPAA. Has that weighed in, in terms of getting the initial support? Now people, you know, senators, one by one, stepping back.

JIMMY WALES: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s clear that, you know, that there is a process by which lobbyists spend a lot of money, make a lot of friendships, and have influence on legislation. And 30, 40 years ago, there wasn’t much the rest of us could do about it. Now we can get organized on the internet, and we can say, “Hey, wait a minute. You’re supposed to be here sticking up for us, not for a handful of small—a handful of big companies.” So, I think that we have a chance to make a difference.

The one other comment I wanted to make is pointing to what some countries in Europe are doing in terms of DNS filtering and blocking, to me, is entirely unpersuasive. This is America. We have the First Amendment. There are certain things that Congress just simply cannot do. The fact that freedom of speech is not as strong in other countries around the world is something not to copy, but something to fight.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Jimmy Wales, for being with us. Sandra Aistars, if you could stay for a moment, we wanted to play a clip for you from one vocal critic of the two anti-piracy bills, who has been pioneering—he is a pioneering internet writer and New York University professor, Clay Shirky. Earlier this week, he recorded a TED Talk called “Defend Our Freedom to Share (Or Why SOPA is a Bad Idea).” This is part of what Professor Shirky had to say.

CLAY SHIRKY: Because the biggest producers of content on the internet are not Google and Yahoo!—they’re us—we’re the people getting policed, because in the end, the real threat to the enactment of PIPA and SOPA is our ability to share things with one another. So what PIPA and SOPA risk doing is taking a centuries-old legal content—innocent until proven guilty—and reversing it: guilty until proven innocent. You can’t share until you show us that you’re not sharing something we don’t like. Suddenly, the burden of proof for legal versus illegally falls affirmatively on us and on the services that might be offering us any new capabilities. And if it costs even a dime to police a user, that will crush a service with 100 million users. So this is the internet they have in mind.

Imagine this sign everywhere, except imagine it doesn’t say “College Bakery.” Imagine it says “YouTube” and “Facebook” and “Twitter.” Imagine it says ”TED,” because the comments can’t be policed at any acceptable cost. The real effects of SOPA and PIPA are going to be different than the proposed effects. The threat, in fact, is this inversion of the burden of proof, where we suddenly are all treated like thieves at every moment we’re given the freedom to create, to produce or to share. And the people who provide those capabilities to us—the YouTubes, the Facebooks, the Twitters and TEDs—are in the business of having to police us or being on the hook for contributory infringement.

AMY GOODMAN: New York University Professor Clay Shirky. We’ll link to his full TED Talk at Sandra Aistars of the Copyright Alliance, what is your response?

SANDRA AISTARS: You know, if the bills did what the professor says they do, I would be the first one standing up to oppose them. It’s simply not true. The artists and the creators that I represent rely on the internet to share their work, to communicate their work, to communicate with each other, to find new ideas, to build on each other’s works. And they would never stand up for a bill that does what the opponents propose that this bill would hypothetically do in some—some situation. Look at the text of the bills. There’s no shifting of the burden of the proof. There’s no reference to any site bearing any remote resemblance to YouTube or to TED or to Twitter or to Wikipedia. The bills go after sites that are primarily dedicated to commercially distributing infringing copyrighted works. This isn’t about people sharing their own works. This is about people abroad in criminal syndicates ripping off U.S. artists’ works and selling them back into the U.S. marketplace without any return going to the creators of those works. And that’s just simply morally wrong, and it’s offensive to the rights of creators to make a living out of their works.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you for being with, Sandra Aistars, executive director of the Copyright Alliance, former vice president and associate general counsel at Time Warner Inc.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be speaking with Bill McKibben, founder, one of the organizations that spearheaded the protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama has now rejected the pipeline’s application to cross the United States. Stay with us.

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