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Protecting Free Speech Online

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Given the Internet's role in helping democratic activists the world over break through government repression, we must be vigilant in protecting free speech online.

But does freedom of speech require the freedom to steal? That's what some are arguing, comparing our efforts to protect American jobs from international criminal enterprises who profit from the theft of intellectual property online to the censorship policies of repressive regimes.

I served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 30 years. I know what authoritarian and totalitarian censorship looks like. And the comparison is baldly false.

We have not proposed, nor would we ever support, attempts to block political websites, censor social media, or silence artists because of what they want to say. I agree with Floyd Abrams -- one of the nation's preeminent First Amendment attorneys -- who wrote in this Sunday's Washington Post that the comparison "trivializes the pain inflicted by actual censorship that occurs in repressive states throughout the world."

"Chinese dissidents," he added, "do not yearn for freedom in order to download pirated movies."

Piracy apologists have it backwards. If there is a threat to free speech here, it is that these international content thieves are destroying artists' ability to make a living sharing their ideas.

Indeed, while we who support cracking down on content theft are bound by -- and deeply respectful to -- the protections for free speech and due process enshrined in our Constitution, those who side with the criminals seem oddly unconcerned with another Constitutional principle.

Just as the First Amendment defends Americans' right to create, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 -- the Copyright Clause -- guarantees Americans the ability to protect their creations from those who would steal them.

That is why a nation that prides itself on the free exchange of ideas must also have strong copyright protections for those ideas. Today, such protections make it possible for more than 2.2 million Americans to hold good jobs supported by the content industry.

And as Floyd Abrams wrote in a letter supporting our efforts to crack down on foreign rogue sites, "the Internet neither creates nor exists in a law-free zone, and copyright violations on the Internet are no more protected than they are elsewhere."

Indeed, the theft of intellectual property (which costs our nation 373,000 jobs and $58 billion in economic output each year) is itself the true threat to free speech, because it threatens to silence the artists whose creations -- and livelihoods -- are being stolen.

Hollywood is pro-Internet -- and I, personally and in my capacity as MPAA Chairman, have always supported a free, open, and thriving Internet.

But it is simply false to suggest that the Internet cannot be free and open unless it is lawless. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote, "The State Department is strongly committed to advancing both Internet freedom and the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights on the Internet. Indeed, these two priorities are consistent."

Critics of our efforts have engaged in outrageous hyperbole and logical gymnastics, misrepresenting not only Secretary Clinton's words, but also my own, in an effort to equate protecting intellectual property with the tactics of dictators.

That is an insult to the many champions of free speech who also support strong copyright protections. And, in the end, it is nothing more than a smoke screen for those who care more about their right to steal than about an artist's right to speak.

But with millions of American jobs on the line, we do not have time for misinformation and false comparisons. We must protect our intellectual property -- or our content creators could be silenced for good.