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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012, 4:12 pm

Some Unions Support SOPA, But Would Anti-Piracy Bill Hurt or Help Workers?

BY Mike Elk

Yesterday, conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch tweeted “AFL-CIO supporting SOPA!”

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and companion legislation in the U.S. Senate (PIPA; full name at bottom) are the controversial proposed copyright enforcement bills that have led many websites, including Wikipedia, to shut down today in protest. The co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, says SOPA and PIPA “would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.”

However, Paul Almeida, president of the AFL-CIO Department of Professional Employees, supports the bills, saying “Protecting intellectual property is not the same as censorship; the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks.”

As many writers and people in creative industries struggle to make ends meet, some union officials say that tougher copyright enforcement could create more jobs for them.  There are currently laws that prevent copyright infringement from groups outside of the United States. But material pirated by foreign groups is hosted by sites outside of the United States, which country can't regulate—despite Americans' ability to view and download information on them. SOPA and PIPA would address this issue by barring search engines like Google or social media sites like Facebook or Twitter from linking to these sites.

Many fear that the bills could lead to censorship. “The rhetoric on both sides of the bill is wrong. There is a lot of smoke and heat going on now in the bill. It’s going to be important to figure out what the actual legislation is at the end of the day before our union supports" anything, says Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Understanding SOPA and PIPA, its Senate companion, is difficult because the bills are still in the committee process and being revised. In some drafts of SOPA, Internet seach engines like Google, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, would be held liable if they fail to block sites with copyright infringed materials or allow links to be posted to websites that have copyright materials on them.

The legislation would also allow Justice Department officials to seek court orders to stop payment processors (such as credit card companies or PayPal) from accepting payments from sites that infringe upon copyright laws. The company who owns the copyrighted material would simply give a five-day notice to the search engine or social media site to say they wanted the link to the website removed. If the search engine or social media site did not take down links to the sites with the copyright infringed material, it could be sued; thus these websites would be required to constantly police themselves to find material that is copyright infringed or risk being sued.

According to Wikipedia, which is protesting the bills by blacking out their site today, “Among other serious problems in the current draft of the bills, the requirement exists for U.S.-based sites to actively police links to purported infringing sites. These kinds of self-policing activities are non-sustainable for large, global sites—including ones like Wikipedia. The legislative language is ambiguous and overly broad, even though it touches on protected speech. Congress says it's trying to protect the rights of copyright owners, but the "cure" that SOPA and PIPA represent is worse than the disease.” 

More agressive forms of the bill also would allow changes to DNS (domain name server) code to filter out censored material that connects websites and makes things like online purchases secure. It could potentially limit online commerce. According to White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, “Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cyber security and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online.”

In addition, some activists like Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation say versions of the bill would also shut down sites that publish information about how to get around changes in the DNS code that allow companies that censor out copyright-infringed material. This would, according to Timm, shut down sites that tell activists in countries like China how to get around their country censorships; hurting the ability often of trade union movements around the world to communicate with one another.

However, the bill is changing quickly as opposition to the bill grows among online activists, civil libertarians and companies like Google. It’s unclear what final form they might take before a vote later this month.

Peterson says sections such as putting liability on search engines and social media sites to self-police and the changing of internet code have been removed, while activists say those elements could easily be added back into the bill.

“We were opposed to SOPA at first, but now we are supportive of the Senate version PIPA, drafted by Senator Leahy, because some of the worst parts of it have been taken out,” said Peterson. “I think we need to pass something like this in order to protect jobs in our industry.”

While the bill might preserve some jobs in the entertainment industry, it could also greatly affect the ability of unions to organize workers using the internet, says Matt Browner Hamlin, a senior fellow at the Citizens Engagement Lab who previously served as the Deputy Director of New Media for the Service Employees union (SEIU).

“It could greatly limit the ability of unions or individual workers to post documents or accounts of life at work that the boss didn't like. Many union organizing campaigns have watch sites or attack sites on the employer they're targeting. These often include whistleblower accounts or leaked documents," Hamlin says. "But if SOPA/PIPA passes as written, the display of content or documents created by those companies could be pulled down by those companies simply complaining to Internet Service Providers. The legislation creates a "censor first, ask questions later" paradigm which would undoubtedly lead Internet Service Providers to honor these requests, rather than risk penalties down the road."

Hamlin worries that SOPA could do more than prevent unions from posting crucial company documents. It could harm the way that unions communicate during a union organizing drive, he says.

“My larger concern is that we don't know what will come in the future of how people use the Internet to share stories or organize themselves through new platforms and technologies. We don't know how bosses would use the new powers of SOPA/PIPA to try to stop workers from talking to each other. Quite simply, it would give bosses a new tool to curtail union organizing activities as they currently exist or in ways we don't yet know. Unions supporting SOPA and PIPA are playing with fire, and they risk the future of using the internet to help workers organize themselves into unions,” Hamlin said.

Petersen disagrees:

I have a lot of people with similar views in my unions that worry about censoring the internet. We are staying focused on our basic principles – that the Internet must remain open so writers and other creators can have direct access to audiences (without the multinational conglomerates controlling the gates as they now do in television and films released in theaters); and that creators need to be protected from thieves who steal their work. These two principles are not mutually exclusive, despite heated rhetoric to the contrary.

The AFL-CIO Department of Professional Employees claims on its website that “In the case of music, experts estimate that the digital theft of sound recordings costs the U.S. economy $12.5 billion in total output and costs U.S. workers 71,060 jobs. In the motion picture industry, piracy results in an estimated $5.5 billion in lost wages annually, and the loss of an estimated 141,030 jobs that would otherwise have been created.” 

But even if the entertainment industry did make (or retain) money by enforcing copyright, it's not clear that the industry would invest that money into creating jobs. “If there were in a good union contract, [workers] would benefit, but if they weren’t, I don’t know if they would,” Petersen acknowledges.

This underscores a larger problem. Many in the creative industries focus on enforcing copyright as a way of regaining jobs and making more money. However, people like Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research say that unions need to rethink this whole mindset and instead focus on different ways the creative industry can be funded.

“Copyright is a system that has become increasingly dysfunctional in the Internet Age. At this point, relatively few people are able to make a living off copyright-protected work, even though you still have a few Madonnas or Stephen Kings who can still do quite well. We need an alternative system that funds creative work upfront and takes advantage of the web's ability to spread material rather than tries to rein it in,” Baker says.

*Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, or PIPA.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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