Can you hear the bells? They’re not Christmas bells, I’m afraid. They’re Pavlovian bells, the ones that Google loves to ring whenever the company sees an opportunity to rally the faithful to the cause of “internet freedom.” They sound like this: SOPA…SOPA…SOPA.
The Sony hack is a bloody mess, the effects of which have yet to be fully realized. So far, we have leaks of sensitive, personal information about individuals; meaningless but click-worthy Hollywood gossip; an international crisis with a psychotic, enemy state; threats of terrorism that squashed the release of a motion picture and halted the production of another; an internal dispute between the president of the country and the president of Sony over not releasing that film; and now a threat to attack the White House allegedly issued by North Korea. But Google thinks this is all about their interests. Here’s why:
As reported by The Verge and The New York Times, leaked information from the hack reveals that Sony, along with the five other major studios, as well as Microsoft, Expedia, and Oracle had been in discussion with their own legal teams along with lawyers at the MPAA regarding a strategy to deal with “Goliath,” a code word understood to mean Google. The problem being addressed by the studios in these communications is Google’s well-known recalcitrance in helping to mitigate systemic piracy of filmed entertainment. Moreover, reports about the documents in these links indicate that the motion picture industry has been working with Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood, who has been seeking information for more than year regarding Google’s possible role in profiting from child pornography, illegal drug trafficking, and mass copyright infringement. This association has been criticized by some, and Google has since filed suit against the AG, but nothing thus far indicates any inappropriate activity between the studios and Hood.
It’s no secret that motion picture producers and Google have an ongoing dispute with regard to piracy of filmed entertainment, and I think it’s a safe bet both parties regularly consult with counsel regarding their own interests. As such, I personally think one of the more serious results of this leak is the rather dramatic breach of attorney/client privilege. I don’t think we want a society in which hackers can arbitrarily violate this fundamental right in our legal system. Apparently, though, Google’s Sr VP and General Counsel, Kent Walker, was unfazed by this implication — perhaps Google is hacker proof — when he was quoted in Variety saying, “We are deeply concerned about recent reports that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) led a secret, coordinated campaign to revive the failed SOPA legislation through other means.” And as of this week, Google has launched a campaign it calls Zombie SOPA. Ding-a-ling!
Walker is not speaking as an attorney, but rather as a PR guy, when he plays the word secret like that in order to imply a conspiracy, knowing full well that communications between clients and attorneys are almost always secret. But near the end of the article, he is also quoted plaintively wondering why champions of the First Amendment like the MPAA would “want to censor the Internet.” Hear them ring! Of course any discussion about legal remedies to mitigate piracy are tantamount to censorship, right? It is the playbook that the Internet industry has been using for years now — that any regulatory or legislative action affecting them is by its very nature an attack on the Internet itself, and therefore an attack on our freedoms. Really, I plan to remain free and to exercise my right of free expression even if half of Silicon Valley one day does a perp walk.
Google can repeat this play all it wants, but real censorship is what happens when a bully, by one means or another, frightens someone into not speaking. The Sony hack story is serious business that reveals several very real dangers associated with this global, networked world in which we now live, including real-world censorship. As one of the lead architects of that networked society, Google should perhaps show some leadership and stop claiming that its disputes with the motion picture industry are about us and our freedoms. They should stop ringing the damn SOPA bell in hopes that nobody will be able to hear himself think.