You may have noticed that the Internet seems a bit..off today. Actually, most of it seems off. Literally. Sites such as Wikipedia (eng), Google, Boing Boing, Reddit,, as well as several other sites, have all decided to go dark today, protesting both the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) Bill and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). And here’s why.
SOPA, is a bill that was originally introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and backed by a bipartisan committee of twelve members, as well as Time Warner, The Recording Industry Association of America, and The Motion Picture Association of America. The bill is intended to enable the U.S. government, on behalf of copyright holders, to issue court orders against websites due to copyright infringement. Now, because of the language of the bill, copyright infringement would fall under anything from user content sharing, online advertising, social media networks, and search engine results. Streaming illegal content stands to land many with a potential five year prison sentence (if found guilty) and at one point, required Internet providers to block access to sites that went against the regulation (but also giving immunity to providers who would voluntarily do this, holding individual users as fully liable). Due to initial backlash, most of the language of the initial SOPA bill had been changed, taking out the DNS-blocking provisions (requiring Internet providers to block access to suspect or targeted sites), however much of the bill remains the same.
PIPA, SOPA’s plan B, is actually a revision of the failed 2010 legislation, Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), and works to target copyright infringement by giving the U.S. government the authority to act on behalf of copyright holders to shut down sites that infringe on copyright and/or offer counterfeit goods (I.e. pirated movies, music, and photos). It also stresses anti-digital rights management and from the bill: “if facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described.” PIPA, like SOPA, is primarily marketed as targeting overseas pirating operations (most torrent sites operate in this manner to avoid U.S.-based copyright laws), however, if there is no one to “prosecute” for the crime, PIPA would instead allow warrants to be issued against any financial exchange providers, advertisers, service providers, and search engines that offer the sites as a searchable. PIPA also allows copyright holders the power to sue any site created after the bill, if they believe the sites are not doing an “effective” enough job, to which no actual criteria on “effective enough job” has been specified in the bill.
As you can imagine, much of the larger Internet is not happy, and in fact, are saying that the bill will do more harm than good. From MSNBC’s The Red Tape Chronicle:
“¦Opponents are rallying around an effort to call attention to the legislation by convincing Web sites to “go dark” on Jan. 18, and display only a simple message of protest on a black background. On Monday, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales announced that his website will go dark for 24 hours starting at midnight ET Tuesday, following the lead of other high-profile promised blackouts. Reddit.com will go black from 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. on Wednesday. The hacker group Anonymous also encouraged others to join in the 12-hour blackout, and garnered a lot of attention with its Twitter post using the hashtag #BlackoutSOPA.
The bills, as many have pointed out, are seriously problematic, if not outright censorship. From our own writer, Baseballchica03, and her piece, “What’s The Big Deal About SOPA“:
Under SOPA, those entire websites could be shut down because of the behavior of a minority of users, or even one. Think of Tumblr posts with links to movie or television downloads, fanfiction posted to Livejournal for source material that writers have expressly requested it not be, music uploaded to YouTube, a Google search that turns up some torrents, not to mention anything cross-posted to Facebook. These site owners do make a good faith effort to shut down copyright infringement when necessary. (Who hasn’t been frustrated at one time or another by clicking on an old link to find that “this content has been removed at the request of_____”?)
SOPA would give the Attorney General a long arm of power, allowing them to shut down not just American-based internet companies violating copyright, but foreign ones as well. The government would have the authority to request that financial institutions stop processing the business of websites that are suspected of infringing on copyright laws. A companion bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, goes even further and would require internet service providers to remove suspect links, even in private e-mail. Both bills use vague language like “in good faith” and “significant use” to cause serious, legitimate concerns about censorship.
So, while these bills are marketed as targeting “illegal” torrent hubs and similar sites, both will actually allow copyright holders to go to law enforcement and get websites that do any content sharing (Facebook, Tumblr, Google Images) shut down and potentially prosecuted without due process. Judges would be able to issue warrants against search engines if they happened to have “illegal” sites come up, and most sites would be punished for having potentially “pirated or illegal” content. This becomes even more of a challenge with sites like Reddit, where if a user decided to upload pirated content, the site itself would be prosecuted and found liable, rather than the user who uploaded content. Any type of posted link would have to be triple checked to make sure there wasn’t even a possibility of infringing upon a copyright, making most content sharing virtually impossible.
An alternative bill called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) has been made public online as an alternative to both bills. OPEN would put sites that infringe on copyright under the watch of the International Trade Commission, which would effectively have the authority to block both advertising and income to the sites, without prosecution. OPEN is a working bill,and asks for leaders in the digital world to come forth with suggestions, however, both SOPA and PIPA remain up for vote, much to the outrage of many. The Obama administration released an official statement last Saturday regarding the content of the bills:
While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.
One has to wonder in the age of such technology, if the real issue here is not just the idea of copyright infringement, but of the way technology is used. One only has to look at Arab Spring and the Occupy movement to understand the impact that digital communication has had, and even with sites like Wikipedia and Reddit, the way information is accessed is very different than it was ten years ago.
So, how does this affect you even if you don’t stream torrents or download music? Well, you can probably kiss your blog goodbye for one, and really, any site that you probably frequent, under the umbrella of copyright violation, since the language of the bill essentially sets up the Internet as a grounds for potential infringement. Sites that have shaped the Internet like Facebook or Twitter would be heavily policed and any sites wishing to take lessons in innovation from them would not be able to follow the same innovative structures. Of sites like Youtube, Rosie Siman of Social Fresh said, “As of February this year, YouTube said 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, resulting in nearly 8 years of content uploaded every day. Just think about how many people would be needed to monitor content submitted. Even if they began charging users, the cost of the changes they would need to make would likely be unbearable.”. So no cute kids singing Nicki Minaj, no jingle cats, no funny parodies, and furthermore, no more of anything that might even slightly hint at any sort of copyright infringement (which will be decided on only by those who hold the copyright). But if anything has become crystal clear, it is that the bill is intended to take more out of the hands of regular citizens and placing access only to those who belong within the upper echelons of society.
The bill is set to vote to pass on January 24th, unless more start kicking up their heels in opposition. If anything, Representative Smith’s words should be a nice reminder that the fight will far be from over:
Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February. I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.