It's no understatement to suggest the internet represents a paradigm shift in global communications, creativity and commerce. It is to the modern age what roads were to the Romans. While lacking the apparent physical substance of other infrastructure, it is nonetheless a very real part of life in the developed world. As such, when Congressional lawmakers start twiddling the knobs of internet regulation, we should all pay attention.

It’s no understatement to suggest the internet represents a paradigm shift in global communications, creativity and commerce. It is to the modern age what roads were to the Romans. While lacking the apparent physical substance of other infrastructure, it is nonetheless a very real part of life in the developed world. As such, when Congressional lawmakers start twiddling the knobs of internet regulation, we should all pay attention.

When Congress returns in January, both houses will take up bills designed to combat internet piracy. The stated purpose of the proposed measures is to combat copyright infringement of movies, music and other intellectual property on non-U.S.-based websites. On face, these measures are a boon to the creators and hosts of online content. Dig much deeper than the superficial rhetoric and a more nefarious scheme becomes evident.

Powerful corporate and technological interests have squared off over the proposals. On one side, content creators, led by Hollywood studios and the music industry, advocate for the most stringent measures. Tech and electronics groups stand in direct opposition.

As reported by CNN, 16 tech companies, including Google, PayPal and Twitter, ran newspaper ads charging that the bills would, “give the U.S. government the power to censor the Web using techniques similar to those used by China.”

At present there are three competing proposals. Known by an alphabet soup only Washington could produce, the three bills are: SOPA; PIPA and OPEN. Of the three, two are particularly troubling. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), was introduced in the House, by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors. The bill expands the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. SOPA builds on the similar PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding Senate bill, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

In theory, a law giving enhanced enforcement tools to combat internet piracy could be a really good thing. Intellectual property costs money to develop, promote and deliver. Whether a song, a book, an image or software code, somebody bore the cost of bringing it to market. They have a reasonable interest in seeing the fruits of their labor protected.

Unfortunately, the overreach permitted by the SOPA and PIPA proposals is tantamount to killing ants with a hammer. Some of the difference between proposals concern their scope. OPEN (Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act) sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) Act seeks to stop transfers of money to foreign websites whose primary purpose is piracy or counterfeiting. SOPA and PIPA share these goals, but also seek to require Internet providers and search engines to redirect users away from viewing the sites. PIPA proposes to do this by blocking domain name resolution. SOPA imposes a broader requirement for network providers to “prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States” including blocking by IP address (and through a technology called deep packet inspection).

OPEN places enforcement responsibility on the International Trade Commission (ITC), which currently adjudicates patent-related disputes, rather than the U. S. Justice Department as per PIPA and SOPA. The ITC would be given power to collect fees from complainants and to hire additional personnel for investigations.

While all three have a stated goal of protecting artists and other content producers, the real differences between OPEN and rival proposals can be summed up in a few sentences. Only OPEN targets the real criminals — foreign rogue websites. It alone ensures intellectual property cases will be decided by IP experts. Only OPEN promotes unfettered access to legitimate websites, while guarding against government censorial overstep. Moreover, it is the only proposal that is philosophically consistent with our democratic ideals of promoting free access to the internet in otherwise more closed societies.

None of this is easy. The techno-jargon curve gets steep very quickly. Even so, this fight represents a watershed moment in internet freedom. As such, it’s worth effort to become informed.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com