The online community did an impressive job of pressuring Congress to back off the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its companion, the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Google carried an ominous black rectangle over its online logo. Wikipedia and Craigslist went down for a day, the space replaced by a page urging people to call their congressmen to stop the legislation (which, in truth, was already imperiled).
It's true that the legislation, as written, is sweeping and arguably would have impacts far beyond its intentions. Internet companies have warned that the bills—meant to deny U.S. access to foreign websites peddling stolen material and to punish American companies that steal other people's work here—could end up limiting Internet commerce and free speech. There is indeed reason to be concerned about the wording of the bill.
But the Internet companies have gone just a tad too far, casting themselves as the protectors of free speech and human rights against the big, evil movie, music and publishing companies that just want to make money. The dot-coms need to get off their collective high horse. They are businesses, too, with a vested financial interest in any legislation regulating the Internet. There's nothing wrong with that, but they should not disguise their agenda, particularly since some of them are targets of legitimate complaints themselves.
Craigslist is a nice resource for people looking for jobs and apartments, and that's terrific. But they're still living down that Craigslist Killer episode. Wikipedia is tremendously useful, but it's not always reliable (since the information is provided and vetted by volunteers), and arguably discourages high school students from learning how to do primary research. Facebook has helped millions reconnect with old friends, but it's also been a vehicle for vicious bullying. And Google "aggregates" other people's work, which writers call "stealing." The fact that Google doesn't reprint an entire article—it only give a paragraph or two—isn't much of a defense, since lots of people just skim those headlines and don't visit the webpages of the outlets that spent the time and money reporting and writing news. And smaller sites routinely post articles—even books—without the permission of the authors or publishers. It's very hard for writers to learn of these thefts and stop them.
So here's one way to help Internet companies prove who's on the up-and-up and who's a thief: let's have a boycott by the film, music, and publishing industries—the companies whose employees and artists provide what Internet denizens dismissively call "content." Let's have a week—maybe even a couple of months—during which newspapers stop putting their work online for sites to "aggregate." Music and film companies could stop providing digital access to their work. That would give us a window into which sites can carry their respective weights without relying on purloined material.
The Internet is a world-changing tool and technology, and we certainly don't want to restrain it unnecessarily. But theft is theft, whether someone goes to a store and slips a CD in a bookbag, or whether one unlawfully downloads music from the Internet. Internet companies don't want to be regulated. Banks, insurance companies, and small brick-and-mortar businesses don't like being regulated either, but they are, in the interests of upholding fair business practices. SOPA may indeed have gone way too far. But stealing is stealing, and Congress will need to deal with it.