For the past two weeks, Washington has been in the depths of a discussion about the best way to stop the online theft of intellectual property.  The content created by movie makers and others  is being stolen by overseas web sites who, sometimes quite blatantly, offer the pirated material to users.

The debate has revolved around two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).  There are serious concerns about these two bills ranging from issues of cybersecurity, to freedom of expression, to a broader worry about unforeseen and unintended consequences.  But it is clear that the end goal of the bills – protecting legitimate expectations of ownership in intellectual property – is a valid and legitimate government objective.

Yesterday, the Federal government gave us a good example of one of the right ways to fight piracy.  It issued a 72-page indictment of the owners of a operators of a popular web site, known as Megaupload.  Four of the defendants were arrested in New Zealand while three remain at-large.  Eighteen domain names were seized.   If the allegations of the indictment are true (and we should be cautious here, because the allegations have yet to be tested in court and the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence), the operators of Megaupload caused more than $500 million of harm to companies and performers whose shows and songs they ripped off. According to the indictment, the entire business model of Megaupload was designed to promote the uploading of copyrighted material and they even paid users they knew were uploading illegal copyrighted content.  If that’s the case, then this isn’t freedom – it’s theft, plain and simple, and one right way to go about stopping theft is to carefully build a case for prosecution in the courts.  That’s what’s needed to uphold the rule of law – a rule that needs to apply even on the Internet.

In response to the indictment, the hacker group Anonymous launched a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the US Department of Justice web site (along with attacks on the US Copyright Office; the French Copyright Office; the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry of America).  DDoS attacks are, in essence, massive message assaults on a web site with phony requests, preventing legitimate requests from getting through.  For a period of time yesterday and this morning, most of these sites were unavailable and off-line because of the attack.

Those sorts of antics make it difficult to sustain support for Internet freedom and instead demonstrate how it might be misused. DDoS attacks by groups like Anonymous are nothing more or less than a degraded form of heckler’s veto, trying to silence the opposition.  Particularly odious was the publication of personal information about one proponent of the bills, including photos of and information about his wife and children.

The Internet is an amazingly innovative engine for the dissemination of ideas and should not be stifled.   But the wrong way to demonstrate that vitality is to abuse it.   Whatever one’s views on the Internet piracy bills being debated in Congress, the Justice Department’s action against Megaupload was a legitimate, and if the allegations are true – necessary – step to stop theft of intellectual property on the web.    Similarly, the vandalism perpetrated by the subsequent hackers should be vigorously prosecuted.  That is something on which all should be able to agree.