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.