In SOPA Debate, Responsibility of Websites and ISPs Should be Front and Center
One of the important themes running through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) debate—and the one least likely to go away, even as the threat of website blocking and other more extreme responses to online piracy dies out—is that of the responsibility of websites and Web service providers for the content they host.
It's an issue that goes beyond SOPA. Consider that for every website inadvertently hosting links or advertisements for illegal content, many more are playing host to potentially libelous statements on their comment boards. This problem comes to the forefront every time a person or business runs into the difficulties of seeking restitution for such statements—the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shields ISPs and owners of websites hosting third-party content from liability. While the posters themselves can, in theory, be held accountable, in practice it is very difficult and expensive to learn the identity of those who choose to be anonymous, as this involves complex technical procedures, court permission and other measures.
I have for some time been struck by the bifurcated media landscape that the Communications Decency Act created. On the one hand, we have print media: Submit a letter to the editor of your local print newspaper, and it is subject to all the normal vetting and editorial procedures that have been the hallmark of professional journalism for decades, including fact checking, editing and requiring a name and contact information for the sender. Similarly, advertising accepted for publication must offer goods and services that are legal or, in many states and depending on the nature of the ad, the paper could be held liable for running it.
Not so on the Internet. A statement carefully edited for printing offline to avoid lawsuits against the publisher could be posted to that newspaper's website and run without any vetting whatsoever. The same applies to the posting of a link to, say, a website offering illegal movie or music downloads.
While SOPA is bad law, and has rightfully been stymied (at least for the time being) by an outpouring of protest from the tech industry and digital service providers, those same players have not moved aggressively enough to put standards in place to combat the problem of illegal material on the Web. I've argued that, in the interests of protecting the integrity of their brand, newspapers should take it upon themselves to vet Internet posts in the same manner in which they have always dealt with print contributors. This could be accomplished by adopting industry standards governing the conduct of publications belonging to influential organizations such as the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of News Editors.
Similarly, according to today's Washington Post, "many [tech] companies have proposed an approach in which the Web sites could police themselves, overseen by an international nonprofit that tracks bad actors."
Perhaps the threat of SOPA will get companies to take this self-policing approach more seriously, just as attempted libel suits (and bad publicity) have forced an increasing number of online publishers to monitor third-party content more closely.
If they don't, the SOPA battle will be only the first of many.