The Heritage Foundation, probably the nation's most influential conservative advocacy group, has long been a reliable ally of large copyright holders. But not when it comes to the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act.
The venerable think tank, which enjoys close ties with the Republican Party and inspired President Reagan's missile defense program and the GOP's welfare reform effort, warned today that SOPA raises important security and free speech concerns.
"The concern with SOPA is that it enforces private property rights at the expense of other values, such as innovation on the Internet, security of the Internet, and freedom of communication," James Gattuso, Heritage's senior research fellow in regulatory policy, told CNET this evening. While SOPA addresses a "very real problem," he says, it's not necessarily the right solution.
Unlike some Washington advocacy groups that are predictably anti-copyright, Heritage has historically taken the opposite position. It called the Motion Picture Association of America's decision to sue peer-to-peer pirates a "wise choice," and suggested that disrupting P2P networks to curb piracy, an idea that some politicians actually proposed, is a step "in the right direction."
Heritage's criticism is important because SOPA author Lamar Smith of Texas, who has become Hollywood's favorite Republican, is almost certain to win committee approval in early 2012. Then the bill's fate will rest in the hands of the Republican House leadership--which could chose to delay a floor vote indefinitely if the GOP appears divided. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)
"The areas that are the most concern are the obligation of service providers to block resolution of IP addresses and the obligation of search engines to block search results," says Gattuso, whose conservative credentials include working at the Federal Communications Commission during the first Bush administration and for then-Vice President Dan Quayle. "Those get to the core issue of why the federal government could be able to interfere with the way the Internet is operated, and the core issue of what people can say and what information they can get on the Web."
A warning from a group like Heritage, usually a staunch ally of copyright holders, could help to sway undecided Republicans. It's no exaggeration: Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general who's now a Heritage fellow, seemed to be channelling an MPAA lobbyist when writing in 2005 that "there is no difference between shoplifting a DVD from a store and illegally downloading a copyrighted movie from Kazaa." Heritage's warnings of international "threats to intellectual property rights" date back to at least 1987. And it scores protection of intellectual property rights in its annual Index of Economic Freedom.
SOPA, of course, represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet providers, and other companies forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish, a kind of Internet death penalty. It's opposed (PDF) by Internet companies and many Internet users.
While Heritage may be the largest, it wasn't the first free-market group to criticize SOPA.
In a letter to Smith last week, TechFreedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Americans for Job Security, and Americans for Limited Government warned Smith that his committee "simply has not spent enough time on this legislation to properly address the complex and important issues at stake." These aren't left-leaning groups by any measure: TechFreedom has argued against Net neutrality, warned against expansive antitrust and privacy regulations, and defended the now-abandoned merger between AT&T and T-Mobile.
"You don't have to be against copyright to be skeptical of SOPA," Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, told CNET today. "Even those who will defend copyright (believe that SOPA) would have sweeping unintended consequences. So it's perfectly consistent for conservatives to insist on both the need to enhance copyright enforcement and to be exceedingly careful about how we do so."
The most prominent group on the other side is probably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has become the most aggressive defender of SOPA, likely because it receives more money in membership dues from Hollywood than Silicon Valley. (Yahoo and Kapersky Lab have dropped out in protest, and Google is under pressure to do the same.) Concerned Women for America and the National Association of Manufacturers have also endorsed SOPA.
In an interview with CNET last week, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a senior House Republican, said SOPA should not be brought to the House floor. (Issa is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which is busy investigating the Obama administration on many fronts, including Fannie and Freddie bonuses, the Justice Department's Operation Fast and Furious, and the Freedom of Information Act.)
If SOPA clears the House Judiciary committee, "would it be appropriate to bring such a controversial bill to the floor?" Issa asks. "I think the Republican House leadership will look and say, 'Unless we have the support of the vast majority of Republicans, we're not going to take the bill to the floor.'"