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Summary:

In testimony on new anti-piracy legislation, Google’s policy counsel argued the payment blockade against WikiLeaks was a good example of how copyright infringement could be handled. But that blockade is a disturbing attack on freedom of the press — is that really something Google wants to support?

In a congressional hearing on Wednesday about the government’s new anti-piracy act, one of the few technology companies to testify was Google, which sent its copyright policy counsel to address the committee. In her comments, Katherine Oyama said the payment blockade against WikiLeaks — in which PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and others refused to process donations to the organization, causing it to effectively shut down — was a model for how new laws could treat copyright infringers. Is Google really saying payment companies (of which the web giant is one, via Google Wallet and Google Checkout) should decide whose websites should be shut down? And why is it promoting the idea of blocking payments to a media entity that has never been charged with a crime?

The bulk of Oyama’s testimony wasn’t about WikiLeaks — it was about the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA, the Senate version of an anti-piracy act that has been making its way through Congress for the past year and has been widely criticized by technology players, including a coalition made up of Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook. In her written statement, the Google lawyer pointed out a number of flaws in the proposed laws, including that they put the onus on private companies (such as payment processing firms and Internet service providers) to shut off access to websites that are seen as infringing, without even a court hearing.

Is the WikiLeaks blockade really something Google supports?

But in her comments to the committee, as reported by Forbes  and others, Oyama said that the way PayPal and other payment handlers choked off the flow of funds to WikiLeaks was a good example of how the government could shut off copyright infringers:

You look at WikiLeaks. I think this is a good example of the fact that this a strong remedy: choking these sites off at their revenue source… If you could get the entire industry together and choke off advertising and choke off payments to those sites, you could be incredibly effective.

Oyama seemed to be trying to make the point that shutting down payments to a site is better than causing the “collateral damage [to] free speech or internet architecture” that is involved in the Stop Online Piracy Act — which would require ISPs to remove infringing websites (or even those suspected of infringing) from the Internet completely, by altering the records in the domain-name system that allows web browser and other software to function properly. But to suggest that a payment blockade is an appropriate solution is just exchanging one bad thing for another, especially if WikiLeaks is the example being used.

Let’s review what WikiLeaks did: It released classified information — including a video of a U.S. air raid in Iraq and some diplomatic cables — that was provided to it by a source who may or may not be former U.S. intelligence analyst Bradley Manning. WikiLeaks released this information in partnership with other media entities, including the New York Times, as well as The Guardian and the German daily weekly Der Spiegel. I use the term “other media entities” because that’s clearly what WikiLeaks is, as I’ve argued before: an organization that did nothing different than what the New York Times did with the Pentagon Papers, as the journalist at the heart of that secrecy scandal has noted himself.

Google should support a free press, not condone attacks on it

Whatever we think of Julian Assange and his personal peccadilloes, the payment blockade of WikiLeaks — as well as the removal of its documents from Amazon’s web servers — is an offence against the freedom of the press, especially since all these actions were taken without anything more than some behind-the-scenes comments from government officials about the dangers of WikiLeaks and potential espionage charges — no hearings, no court cases, no documents or even credible allegations of wrongdoing. Is this really the kind of model Google wants to suggest the government should pursue for online piracy?

Oyama said her vision of this future would involve the Department of Justice ordering payment companies to act, after a court hearing into whether a website was infringing or not. But as we’ve seen with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, actions against services like YouTube and others are already commonplace even when there is no credible evidence of infringement. And what if the site or service in question fell into a gray area the same way WikiLeaks seems to when the subject of media protection comes up? Would Google shut off payments to it because the government told it to? I would hope not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and jphilipg

  1. I would hope so. It’s only through revealing the absurd implications of laws like this that our representatives can see how problematic they are.

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  2. Are you really this misinformed about what freedom of speech and freedom of press actually entails? Its always been illegal to use stolen documents in media. This is nothing new at all. If someone stole the plans to build airforce aircraft using new stealth technology you actually CONDONE that a news outlet has the right to take those documents and publish them in newspapers as long as they didn’t steal the documents themselves? This has NEVER been legal – even with freedom of the press laws; just like its never been legal to scream fire in a crowded building even with freedom of speech laws.

    Now that you understand freedom of press doesn’t give you the right to publish stolen documents, lets talk about the other half of this article. Should a payment processor have the right to suspend payments to a person, company, or organization without a court order? I’ll certainly hope the answer is no, they don’t have the right.

    In the meantime until someone tries to file a lawsuit against me I am going to start up a website where I sell pirated copies of microsoft windows for $25.00 a copy payable via google checkout and paypal. Since the payment processor can’t withhold my funds, I figure I will make a few million easily before I even have to appear in court – so I should be able to get a nice defense attorney to help me at least keep 1/2 of what I made.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Bruce — and yet, newspapers like the New York Times routinely publish information that comes from documents that were leaked or otherwise provided in violation of all kinds of rules, including government secrecy laws. It’s a cornerstone of journalism.

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    2. Nebojsa Despotovic Thursday, November 17, 2011

      There is an important difference in the type of the information that is leaked. Publishing aircraft plans and videos of innocent civilians brutally killed is hardly the same.

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    3. The entire point of the media is to be government watchdogs. To leak and explain documents so the people can keep the government in check. So are ignorant on the purpose of the media.

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  3. It seems you didn’t hear what she was saying. She said the payment blockade showed that it is an effective tool to shut down a site (wikileaks example). She then specified that the blockade should be ordered by a judge. It’s not up to the payment processors to decide who to block like in the wikileaks case. She just mentioned it to demonstrate the effectiveness of the blockade.

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  4. Der Spiegel is not a daily but a weekly news magazine. They also operate a 24/7 news site named Spiegel Online a.k.a. SpOn.

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    1. Thanks for that — I will fix.

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  5. Google using the financial chokehold on WikiLeaks as an example on how to stop piracy is an intriguing stand for a company that tries not to be evil, oh the irony.

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  6. I loved pretty much all of Oyama’s answers, except that one. I was very disappointed in that comment. I really hope that won’t continue to be Google’s official stance on this, but my guess is it will be. Why? Because they feel cornered, and sending the legislators on financial companies, will get them off the hook, or at least that’s what they are hoping.

    This is why I was hoping organizations like EFF would be present at the hearing. Since when is a law debated only be the corporations, especially when it affects the public, too? The public needs some representatives, too, so they can talk about issues like freedom of speech, censorship, and so on. If Google is against SOPA, they will only defend those to a certain point, because it might not be in their direct interest to do so.

    I also don’t like the fact that online copyright infringement is considered by default a criminal act, and the hearing was established with that in mind – that it’s a criminal act, and it “must be stopped”.

    But what if that’s not true, and they are on the wrong part of history and Internet evolution? So who is going to debate in favor of that? Who is going to defend certain forms of fair uses? Google? I don’t think so. We need organizations that have no stake in SOPA in a way that would impact their profits, to participate at the hearing.

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    1. Good point, Lucian — I agree. Thanks for the comment.

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  7. Wikileaks has let out some important and secret information over the last few years. If you don’t know what wikileaks is, this article gives an explanation on it.

    http://explainlikeakid.blogspot.com/2011/10/wiki-leaks.html

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  8. If this is the case, and they don’t, then holy hell is going to erupt, and according to a source at the Pent, they had anticipated this issue a while back.. I still think it’s all an infringement on many civil rights freedom of speech, and illegal censorship… Google you are shooting yourself in the head if you condone and or do this… Google will fail while another will rise… Mark my word…

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  9. The internet didn’t really take off until people found out how much stuff they could get for free using it. Download sites pop up again as fast as they are closed down. Blocking payments to those sites WOULD probably be the most effective way of shutting them down… until an independent who won’t be swayed by the US government sees a gap in the market and opens their own online payment company.

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  10. The internet didn’t really take off until people found out how much stuff they could get for free using it. Download sites pop up again as fast as they are closed down. Blocking payments to those sites WOULD probably be the most effective way of shutting them down… until an independent who won’t be swayed by the US government sees a gap in the market and opens their own online payment company.

    Share

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