When Shakespeare was authoring plays, his play along with those by any other playwright, had to be approved by the master of revels—the Queen’s censor. The cost of doing so was born by the production company. Writing a play that flirted with morally or politically subversiveness was a dangerous game that could lead to torture and imprisonment.

At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen’s [Elizabeth’s] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain’s Men [Shakespeare’s company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen’s counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries. [John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, Page 31]

The comparison is not between “piracy” and moral and political subversion (though comparisons can be made) but the near absolute power exercised by the Master of the Revels. The bill presently being pushed by powerful industry and corporate interests is a similar, extra-judicial power grab. As the saying goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Passing this bill would give industry and corporate interests the same powers (over me and you) that the Master of the Revels (and government censors throughout history) have enjoyed and exercised. Art and learning thrives through the sharing of ideas and, yes, even the theft of ideas; but a balance must be struck. There are far better ways to control piracy.

A key provision of the bill would give copyright owners the power to stop online advertisers and credit card processors from doing business with a website, merely by filing a unilateral notice that the site is “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property” — even if no court has actually found any infringement.

The immunity provisions in the bill create an overwhelming incentive for advertisers and payment processors to comply with such a request immediately upon receipt. Courts have always treated such cutoffs of revenue from speech as a suppression of that speech, and the silencing of expression in the absence of judicial review is a classic prior restraint forbidden by the First Amendment. [Laurence Tribe, Constitutional Scholar]

The freedom of expression found on the internet is unique in human history; and because of that freedom, powerful interests, both private and public, are threatened. The bill gives the U.S. government the ability to block sites using methods similar to those enjoyed by the Chinese Communist Party, and for this reason the bill is opposed by human rights organizations and a variety of legal scholars.

For now, the Internet belongs to you and me. Help keep it that way.

3 responses

  1. Glad to see you supporting this and doing your part to get the message out. I’ve always been pessimistic about the enduring freedom of the internet. It’s a wonderful thing, but, as you say, it threatens those in power, and when those in power are threatened it just becomes a matter of throwing enough money and weight around before they get their way. I think Neil Gaiman hit it right when he noted how putting his books out for free actually HELPED rather than hindered sales. Word of mouth is one of the most important things needed to get people buying at all, and it seems companies would rather engage the billion dollar promotion machine instead of just allowing some people to try it for free and get the word out themselves.


    • It’s a thorny issue. Piracy certainly costs money but many of the figures being thrown around, in terms of job loss, have been dismissed even by our own government. The bottom line is that lawmakers need to consult with those most knowledgeable and most likely be indirectly and adversely affected — tech industry experts — before passing laws like these. They apparently have not done so.


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