“Ask yourself what’s right”: The White House Wants Compromise on Rogue Sites

By Chris Castle

Chairman Patrick Leahy made a remarkably prescient comment at the Napster hearing in 2000:  “When you tell 20 million people they can’t do something, they get mad at you.”  The “something” was stealing mostly music and some movies—a problem that in retrospect seems relatively simple.

And now, nearly 12 years later, that relatively simple problem has become an entrenched and even deadly business model involving publicly traded companies like Google paying $500,000,000 forfeitures to avoid being indicted for promoting the sale of controlled substances.  Large numbers of users routinely steal movies online and cyberlocker sites sit outside the jurisdiction of the United States and blithely sell stolen movies, software, games and music back into this country as well as drugs (counterfeit and prescription), auto parts and military equipment—with U.S. companies selling advertising to create the financial incentive for everyone but the creators.

Judging from the reaction online to the rogue sites legislation, Chairman Leahy was proven right again—when you let millions of people get accustomed to stealing, getting them to stop is a tall order.   Particularly when they have companies like Google backing them up.

It’s always hardest to say no to our friends, and the White House is to be commended for how they are handling a full court lobbying press from Google.  The company has an obvious political connection to the Obama Administration at the highest levels and is making a bumbling end run around the Congress in what appears to be a bush league attempt to call in a perceived political marker to feather its own nest.

Aside from the fact that this attempt at crony capitalism is exactly the kind of “business as usual” that the Obama Administration stands clearly against, Google may be so lost in the Silicon Valley bubble of the 1% of the 1% that they have missed the point—it’s not enough to pay lip service to rogue sites as “a problem”—unbridled online theft has been “a problem” for over a decade.  The Obama Administration is doing more to prosecute bad actors and those who profit from them than any previous administration in the short history of the Internet.  The Obama Administration is about to extradite a digital native from the U.K. for operating a rogue site and criminally prosecute this individual for massive copyright infringement—and profiting from it by selling the advertising that fuels the cesspool.

Did Google really think that the Administration was going to drop all this effort and say “just kidding” because Google might be inconvenienced if it were held accountable for its bad acts?  The White House statement is clear:

“While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders. That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to [American] principles….. We should never let criminals hide behind a hollow embrace of legitimate American values.”

This is an eloquent summary of the problem—and lays down a pretty clear marker to those who think they can continue business as usual with rogue sites by a Presidential veto.  (President Obama has vetoed two bills–the 2010 continuing resolution and we know what happened with that and the  Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act of 2010.  At the risk of stating the obvious, a veto is a big, big deal.)

The truth is that what keeps society together is not laws or law enforcement alone.  It is the resonance of moral design.  It’s that voice inside that is your mother, father, rabbi, priest, pastor, teacher or other moral guide who tells you don’t do the bad thing, not because you will get caught, but because it is wrong.  Because we are better than that.

As the White House says, “[Rogue sites are] not just a matter for legislation. We expect and encourage all private parties, including both content creators and Internet platform providers working together, to adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.

So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right.”

You could not ask for a clearer statement of the resonance of moral design.  I would expect no less from an Administration that has stood up for artist rights as this one has.

“Washington needs to hear your best ideas about how to clamp down on rogue websites and other criminals who make money off the creative efforts of American artists and rights holders. We should all be committed to working with all interested constituencies to develop new legal tools to protect global intellectual property rights without jeopardizing the openness of the Internet. Our hope is that you will bring enthusiasm and know-how to this important challenge.”

Hear hear.