January 18th: The Internet Revolts Against SOPA and PIPA and the General Trend Towards the Censorship of the World Wide Web
This Day In History: January 18, 2012
This day in history thousands of websites, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, TheOatmeal (which gives the most amusing of all the protests, though slightly inappropriate for younger audiences), WordPress, Makezine, Mozilla, and the entire O’Reilly Media network went black (complete list of confirmed websites that are participating), their owners voluntarily taking the sites down specifically in protest of proposed legislation in the United States, SOPA and PIPA, but more generally in protest of the disturbing trend of internet censorship; this time some of the most drastic such legislation ironically coming from a government who is constantly criticizing other governments for doing just this. Many other websites, most notably Google, are also taking part in the protest, not by taking their site(s) down, but by promoting awareness of an issue that previous to today has conspicuously stayed mostly out of the main stream media (whose owners almost unanimously support and are lobbying for SOPA and PIPA to pass).
The underlying goal of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) is a good one, stopping internet piracy and copyright infringement by providing tools for copyright holders to protect their intellectual property. Today I Found Out itself constantly has its articles taken without any sort of credit or compensation and posted on various websites on the internet. We’ve even had a few websites pop up that simply change the domain name and look of the site, but otherwise copy 100% of the content of Today I Found Out. Despite this fact, we are wholly against SOPA and PIPA due to the fact that they do not accomplish their main goal and rather show a complete lack of understanding of even the extreme basics of how the internet and World Wide Web works and what the drastic unintended consequences of such poorly drawn up legislation would be.
I’ll spare you the technical details on the many ways it could be done, but, in this case, while SOPA and PIPA purport to be about stopping internet piracy, if passed, neither will be very effective at accomplishing this goal as there are extremely easy ways around the preventative measures they propose, should someone want to download a movie illegally or the like. In fact, ironically, the U.S. State Department itself is currently funding the development of tools to get around such restrictions so that people living under governments who attempt to censor the internet will have easy ways around the censorship. So while one portion of the U.S. Government is trying to put in place a tool to censor the U.S. web, another is trying to build a tool around such censorship by what the State Department deems “oppressive regimes”.
What these bills actually WILL accomplish though, includes: compromising security on some of the core systems of the internet; put in place a system that will be ripe for abuse, in terms of allowing the government to censor anything it wants on the internet without any due process; and making it nearly impossible for anyone who didn’t have a significant sum of money to spend on legal fees and infrastructure to setup a new business/website on the internet, as well as create a significant burden on existing websites to enforce these laws, as SOPA and PIPA put the burden on website owners to do so. The latter two of which would have a significant negatively impact on one of the few industries today that is seeing positive growth and is boosting the economy. As an example, companies like Google would no longer be able to go from a few old computers in a garage hosting their website to one of the largest corporations in the world without the internet being open, as it is today.
I think the founder and CEO of the O’Reilly Media, Tim O’Reilly said it best:
“These legislative attacks are not motivated by clear thinking about the future of the Internet or the global economy, but instead seek to protect entrenched companies with outdated business models. Rather than adapting and competing with new and better services, these organizations are asking Congress for cover.
Any forward-looking country must encourage its emerging industries, not protect its laggards. Yet, in a time when the American economy needs to catalyze domestic innovation to succeed in a hyper-competitive global marketplace, members of the United States Congress have advanced legislation that could damage the industries of the future.”
It should also be noted that SOPA and PROTECT IP do not actually try to have infringing content removed from the web, what they do is try to remove any reference to a potentially infringing site (whether they actually are or not) from the web, so that no links to that site exist anywhere on U.S. based websites and there is no direct way for a U.S. based individual to access these potentially infringing sites.
Even if just one page or one tiny bit of content exists on some website that is potentially infringing on someone’s copyright, without due process any reference to the entire site would quite literally be required to be removed from the U.S. web. In essence, the “brick and mortar” equivalent of this would be if someone stole something, then took it and put it in a safe deposit box in a bank, rather than go after the thief or even just removing the stolen item, this would require that the entire bank and all its branches be blocked from allowing anyone to enter them, without due process. Worse, really, as it wouldn’t even have to be proven that the stolen item was in the safe deposit box, simply the allegation would be enough.
While you’ll hear argued by many supporters of these bills that they will not affect websites based in the United States, this once again shows a complete lack of understanding on how the internet works on their part and simply isn’t true at all. For instance, amazon is a U.S. based site, primarily, but they also have such “locations” as amazon.co.uk, which under SOPA and PIPA would fall under the “foreign site” brush, even if they were hosted in the U.S. Thus, if some reviewer of some product posted something that infringed on someone’s copyright (or just allegedly infringed) all of amazon.co.uk would be subject to banning, not just the review or page the review was found on (pretty much any big site, like Bit.ly, Google, Ebay, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, etc, that allows any user submitted content anywhere under their domain would also have similar troubles). In addition to this, any U.S. based site that even so much as links to a site that has been blocked will be breaking the law and themselves be subjected to seizure should they not remove the link and any reference to it.
Further any website, even if they are domestic, that uses a third-party content-delivery service (which most medium size and above do), these will very likely fall under the brush of “foreign” because of the overly broad wording in SOPA and PIPA, even when they are actually U.S. based. This is because any good content delivery network will have servers all over the world serving the content closer to home of the people accessing the content, which is kind of one of the main points of using a content delivery network.
In the context of Today I Found Out, SOPA/PIPA means that if any one of my literally tens of thousands of References links amongst all the articles here point to a website that ultimately is blocked, then my website now would also be breaking the law if I don’t remove that link and references to that link, even though this site is U.S. based and is not itself actually violating anyone’s copyright. Even were I to simply get rid of all my reference/further reading links (which I’d be loath to do, but I don’t see how a small site like mine could manage this otherwise), if someone in comments posted a link pointing to one of these websites, and I didn’t notice among the tens of thousands of comments posted on Today I Found Out, this website once again would be in violation of the law if that link and any references to it weren’t removed; thus, Today I Found Out, under SOPA, would then be “facilitating the commission of criminal violations” and this site would be subject to seizure.
This type of thing would not just affect small sites like mine, but also on a much more drastic scale, affect a site like Wikipedia, that has billions of links they’d have to continually monitor, along with the sites they point to and the information they got from those sites. Had SOPA/PIPA been in place when Wikipedia started up, this would have been prohibitively expensive and we’d likely not have Wikipedia today.
Further, these bills encourage over banning of sites, providing provisions for blockers to be completely immune from any consequences from blocking a site that wasn’t infringing on anyone’s copyright.
This system is also ripe for abuse in that anyone who uses copyrighted content for parody or any other normally “fair use” would very likely quickly find their websites banned from the U.S. web. Given that such organizations as the MPAA and RIAA tend to try to push the limits of the law in suing people who are legitimately using content in such “fair use” ways, this isn’t just possible under SOPA andPIPA, but probable.
Even if you’re not based in the U.S., these bills will still affect you, leastwise from copy-cat legislation that would likely ensue the world over (there is even currently a similar multinational agreement being pushed forth called ACTA, Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which is very similar to SOPA and PIPA). More directly, this will affect you from the fact that websites like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, etc. will be required to filter the web on behalf of copyright holders, blocking any website that is deemed to be infringing, whether legitimately because they really are infringing on someone’s copyright, or more often than not very likely not infringing on anyone’s copyright. Without due process, these websites have no defense and can easily be put on the ban list simply by being accused of violating copyright. So, you will no longer be able to access these websites from search or the like, even though potentially your own governments are not banning the sites.
If this sound ridiculous to you, you’re absolutely right. Some have even proposed that SOPA/PIPA was originally presented because they are so ridiculous, thus, the follow up legislation that would normally have been thought ridiculous would seem fairly reasonable in comparison (this practice is not that uncommon and is a powerful negotiation tool). Even if it was intended to be this, the fact of the matter is that both of these bills aren’t that far from being passed officially, with the vast majority of relevant politicians currently in support.
Because of this, and the fact that the mass media was keeping quite silent on this issue, today’s blackout event was organized and staged to promote awareness and to help people who aren’t technically inclined understand how these seemingly well-meaning and innocent anti-piracy laws are actually anything but. What they actually are is essentially bills that are trying to use a cannon to kill a fly that is about 50 meters off flying around in a crowded city square.
The bottom line is SOPA and PIPA will not actually do much of anything to prevent or even deter online piracy, which is supposedly the whole point of these bills. Their broad language, which also shows a complete lack of technological understanding, will hurt one of the few areas of the economy currently doing well. Finally, they will put in place a system that would give the government the power to censor anything they wanted on the web, something that the U.S. government continually criticizes other nations for doing, while simultaneously frequently proposing bills like these to be able to put such a system in place in the U.S.
There is a great need for effective anti-online piracy laws. But when these laws are drafted, because of the fact that politicians are typically woefully ignorant of anything concerning technology and the internet, they need to be made with heavy cooperation from the technology sector, particularly on the wording, which must have air-tight, narrow definitions, rather than the broad technological-ignorant wording used in SOPA and PIPA. Any such bill must also protect the fundamental right to free speech and give due process to any accused of violating someone else’s copyright and/or intellectual property.
But please, don’t take my word on any of this. Educate yourself on SOPA and PIPA, including the subtle differences between the two, and, when you’re done, contact your local Representative about this very important issue:
- Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – The Bill Itself
- Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) – The Bill Itself
- How PIPA and SOPA Violate White House Principles Supporting Free Speech and Innovation
- The Impact of U.S. Internet Copyright Regulations on Early Stage Development
- How the SOPA Violates the First Amendment
- List of the Members of Congress Who Support SOPA/PIPA and Those Who Don’t
- Google’s take on SOPA and PIPA and Similar Legislation
- Wikipedia’s take on SOPA and PIPA
- Stop the Internet Blacklist Bills
- Stanford Law: Stop SOPA
- The Open Act – A SOPA / PIPA alternative that aims to protect copyright holders, while also protecting the open internet and freedom of speech
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