For those of you not in the US, you may be wondering why there are “blackouts” on websites all over the place. Google.com, Wikipedia and yes, even WordPress. What is going on?
Well for some time now, the US government has been hemming and hawing over how to control copyright over the Internet. This is not new; ever since that peer-to-peer file sharing enabler Napster opened it’s doors, people have realised that the true power of the Internet is sharing. But of course, like the overgrown bullies in the playground, not everybody wants to share… although they’re not entirely to blame. Owners of copyrighted material are, unsurprisingly, unhappy with the loss of potential income due to the sharing (“piracy”) of their work. Fair enough.
Since then, owners of these copyrighted materials, most notably Hollywood for movies and various recording studios for music, have been trying to gain leverage to stop this kind of carry-on. There have been a slew of copyright legislation Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) which allow these companies to request that service providers remove videos, links and pictures. And they do on a constant basis.
Flash forward to today and the two most recent bills being proposed to curb piracy online are being discussed in congress. They are the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or SOPA/PIPA for short, and are the cause for these blackouts. In theory these bills are meant to cut down on internet piracy, but could (very much) instead be infringing on internet users’ privacy and freedom. Not to mention the increase of burden and cost to Internet service providers like Youtube, Facebook, Tumblr and even search engines like Google.
Why’s that? Well, without getting too melodramatic about it, the answer is: SOPA/PIPA just gives companies and the US government too much power.
And before you think that not being in the US means that you won’t be affected, this law is being touted as being targeted at foreign sites that allow sharing of copyrighted material. Under the new legislation, internet content providers will be required to block access to infringing (and supposedly foreign) domain names. It will also force funding, such as ads, to be cut off from (again, supposedly foreign) infringing sites.
[Edit: This video explains the acts better than I can]
But the beef of the matter is that the wording of the bills is so ambiguous and broad that we don’t know exactly what it allows and what it disallows. Allow me to share an example from Gizmodo:
If Warner Bros., for example, says that a site in Italy is torrenting a copy of The Dark Knight, the studio could demand that Google remove that site from its search results, that PayPal no longer accept payments to or from that site, that ad services pull all ads and finances from it, and—most dangerously—that the site’s ISP prevent people from even going there.
This would allow companies to create instant blacklists of sites, just by accusation. In fact, the original draft of the bill allowed that content providers block the site “on good faith” that the accuser is right, without even going to court. Although this provision has been modified, first to allow a challenge within a five-day period and now requiring court approval, the danger here is clear. SOPA and PIPA are still going to give too much power to companies to sue to shut down websites.
So what will this really mean for us? Of course this is pure speculation but I think it will be not a lot, and yet a lot at the same time. For most of us bloggers, it probably won’t make too much a difference as long as we don’t ever post up links to any copyrighted material. But it would mean exactly that: more censorship of the Internet. If you use video sharing sites like Youtube, this would mean no more posting your cover song and no more posting of your baby dancing to Beyonce or any other homemade movie with a copyrighted soundtrack. Not only that but if you frequently use US based sites such as Wikipedia or Google, you will also start finding the content you receive being censored from all these. It would basically redefine the Internet into a much more structured, corporate-suit-wearing entity rather than the lackadaisical, spontaneous thing it currently is.
Now I’m no supporter of piracy or even a citizen of the US but for what it’s worth, I do not support this bill. I think that giving companies more power to sue is NOT a good idea. They can already get internet service providers to remove copyrighted material under other legislation like the DMCA. The way these companies have exercised their power in the past have been nothing short of horrendous (including suing this 12 year old girl for downloading music), and frankly feel a little like an invasion of privacy. As for their stated aim of attacking foreign targets? Even now, the various sites that offer ways to download copyrighted material seem countless. Instead of wasting their time and money blocking down every single site, as well as every new one that will inevitably pop up to take its place, these companies could do a lot more in making their original products more attractive and therefore compete directly with piracy, rather than us users.