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Rep. Jared Polis, Web entrepreneur, on SOPA (Q&A)

Colorado Democrat has a good reason to say the Stop Online Piracy Act will "destroy the Internet as we know it." He previously founded a Web hosting company and BlueMountainArts.com.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read

Rep. Jared Polis probably knows more about how Internet businesses work than does any other member of the U.S. Congress.

Which is why it should be no surprise that Polis, 36, a Colorado Democrat who has founded a series of successful Web businesses including the BlueMountainArts.com electronic greeting card company, has become an ardent foe of the Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA will "destroy the Internet as we know it," he warns.

Rep. Jared Polis U.S. House of Representatives

SOPA represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. It would allow the Justice Department to seek an order making allegedly piratical Web sites virtually vanish from the Internet. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)

That approach has attracted criticism from Internet engineers, Web companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Zynga, and civil liberties and human rights groups. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe says SOPA violates the First Amendment and "should not be enacted by Congress."

Polis, who also founded Web hosting company American Information Systems and whose district includes Boulder and some of Denver's suburbs, is the newest member of the House Judiciary committee. He's planning to put his position to good use this Thursday, when the committee meets to vote on a revised version of SOPA.

CNET spoke with Polis, who took office in 2009, this afternoon. Below is the transcribed interview, lightly edited for clarity. [Ed. Note: On November 18, CNET offered MPAA the same interview opportunity. The MPAA declined. CNET also offered MPAA member company Paramount Pictures the same opportunity. Paramount did not respond.]

Q: Are you the only Internet entrepreneur in Congress?
Polis: That's a good question. I cannot think of any others offhand.

Why are you so concerned about SOPA?
Polis: In my professional career in the technology industry, I had the opportunity to be on nearly every side of every issue.

I had patents frivolously attempted to be enforced against me. I tried to enforce--fully justifiably enforced--patents against others. I had intellectual property issues on both sides. I've been involved in receiving venture capital, on the funding side. I've gotten to see all sides of the industry from the investor side, the principal side, the rights holder side, the fair use side, from the e-commerce side, the advertiser side.

I think what's needed in public policy is a balance. SOPA is far from a balance. It still reads like a wishlist for rights holders rather than a balanced approach.

What do you think of the revised version? I've been calling it SOPA v2.0.
Polis: It's certainly an improvement over the previous draft. But it has a number of problems.

It allows and mentions DNS blocking. The new version eliminates a remedy process, which is a critical piece. Before you go to court, sites should have an opportunity to comply. We also have a threat to free speech by including search engines, including some language that can be used very easily against BitTorrent and Web anonymizers that are actually used to get around censorship.

There's a lot of damaging elements to the bill, to the Internet ecosystem and free speech.

You had an exchange on Twitter with Creative America on SOPA, after the group claimed that over 320 of your constituents sent you pro-SOPA letters. Were you tweeting that yourself?
Polis: Of course.

Some members of Congress might not...
Polis: No! Are you serious? (laughs) It doesn't happen here, Declan.

You replied to Creative America saying: "Are u insane? SOPA would destroy the Internet as we know it."
Polis: I had fun with that. They were saying, "Oh, we generated hundreds of calls to your office." I said: You're not getting your money's worth. We certainly didn't get 300 calls. We got hundreds against SOPA saying don't support it. [Ed. Note: After checking the actual figures for the last two weeks, a spokesman emailed us afterward to say: "We haven't received a single call asking us to pass SOPA."]

You had an exchange last week with Attorney General Eric Holder on SOPA. What do you think of his response, that if SOPA were law the Justice Department would have to allocate its resources in choosing which sites to target? Prosecutorial discretion?
Polis: Exactly. I find this particularly hypocritical, this proposal, coming from many Republicans. Not Darrell Issa, who's consistent and opposed to SOPA.

Other Republicans have been very skeptical of the attorney general's leadership, of his use of discretion. And here we're going to give him enormous powers over the Internet and allow him to use them at his discretion in a selective way.

He's going to have to make some choices about enforcing it. And that raises the specter of that being colored by political considerations or economic considerations or ideological considerations--or who knows what considerations will be used by any attorney general when it comes to selective enforcement.

What kind of outreach do you get from copyright holders versus technology companies and Internet users? Who's more effective at lobbying?
Polis: I think it's fair to say that many of the proponents of SOPA have a larger more traditional presence in D.C. than many of the tech companies and grassroots opponents of SOPA, who don't have the same kind of lobbying apparatus in Washington.

Your advice for tech companies? Spend lots of money on D.C. lobbyists?
Polis: Many in the tech industry are waking up to this threat. It's a wake up call to many companies.

When you're talking to tech companies, there's a perception that Congress could never do anything this stupid or one-sided. It's a challenge for me to convey to them that, yes, this actually could pass and you need to pay attention and work to derail it.

What's your prediction for the committee vote this week?
Polis: I don't know the vote count. I think it is somewhat surprising that we have a totally different bill that we just saw yesterday, and I'm working on trying to prepare some amendments to that.

It's slightly better, but it's still fundamentally a damaging bill to the Internet economy. We'll see what it's reception is. I think many members and their staffs are just reading this bill today for the first time.

What amendments are you planning to propose to SOPA v2.0?
Polis: We're just preparing amendments now. I just read it myself this morning.

I don't see how [Chairman Lamar Smith] can necessarily have the votes on a version that everyone is just seeing for the first time yesterday and today. I think people are just beginning to digest what is a flawed bill but is fundamentally different in many ways from the draft that had been circulated earlier.

Another provision that I think is just ridiculous is to have this blacklist of notorious infringers that are named foreign people that are then ineligible to raise capital from Americans or the the American marketplace. It shows a real misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Because if we name somebody a "notorious infringer," they can raise a ton of money from the netroots just on that.

Can you imagine if the attorney general said that "Vladimir Vivinsky" from Moscow is a notorious infringer? All of a sudden, that person who was a nobody becomes a somebody and can raise millions of dollars from people who tend to support WikiLeaks and other causes like that. We're causing a bigger problem.

Any last thoughts?
Polis: I think that this bill in its current form will have serious problems on the floor of the House. It's important to push the effort to derail it in the next few days.

Everyone agrees with the concept of protecting intellectual property. I care deeply about it...I was involved with Web sites like BlueMountain.com--we were ripped off and had to engage in actions against people who pirated our intellectual property.

Everyone agrees that we should do something. But we don't want a so-called solution that's worse than the problem. And doesn't address the problem. I hope that we can declare this bill dead soon so we can actually do something, working with the valid stakeholders to ensure that intellectual property is better respected.