I imagine some of you reading this woke up this morning and tried to access Wikipedia. Whether you were doing an essay, trying to remember who played John McClane’s wife in Die Hard, or factchecking a Newt Gingrich advert, Wikipedia would probably be your first port of call. So I imagine some of you have seen the above picture already. You probably know it’s a protest against SOPA and PIPA, and that it’s something to do with internet piracy, but as how controversial bills are is usually directly proportional to how confusing they are, you may not understand exactly what everyone’s so upset about.
I’ll try to explain.
What are SOPA and PIPA?
SOPA stands for ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ and is currently in the United States House of Representatives. PIPA is the ‘PROTECT IP Act’ (itself an acronym for Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act – Congressmen love their acronyms!) and is the Senate equivalent. Together, they constitute a grave threat to the internet as we know it.
What do they do?
The point of the bills is to stop internet piracy by blocking American access to foreign domain names that host pirated material, suing search engines to remove the links to these sites, and forcing advertisers and payment services to cut links with these offending sites.
So what’s the problem?
- It won’t work. The bills focus on the domain names themselves. As the jurisdiction of the US Congress does not extend to where many of these sites are hosted, the sites will still remain and accessing them will be as easy as typing the IP number into the address bar.
- It will stifle creativity. There are two ways that SOPA/PIPA will destroy creativity – firstly the bills will give large companies the power to sue any site that they feel is not doing enough to stop piracy. Imagine you have set up a new social media site. You’re unlikely to have the manpower to filter everyone’s content or the financial muscle to survive a lawsuit. The end result of this would be a massive reduction in startups. The other way is more obvious (and articulated brilliantly by The Oatmeal today). He wouldn’t even be able to make a gif of Oprah and Jesus riding a jet ski through space without getting his website shut down, and I don’t want to live in a world where that is the case.
- It is absolutely ripe for abuse. Under the piracy laws at the moment, if someone was to post a copyrighted piece of material on a site such as Reddit or YouTube, the copyright holder can issue an official request to have it taken down. Surely you have seen this page on YouTube before: The offender under current law is the person who posted the copyrighted material. Obviously. However, this is apparently too sane, as SOPA and PIPA would make the website liable for user-generated content. Say I have a vendetta against a website (or perhaps it simply competes with me for traffic). I could quite easily repeatedly post my copyrighted material anonymously on the site, then report it for violation of the acts. Under SOPA and PIPA this could lead to the Justice Department cutting off their funding, effectively strangling the site. Think what it means for scientific debate.
Under SOPA/PIPA, websites such as Facebook could be shut down, without due process, just for one copyrighted link posted by one user. The user who posted that link could be sentenced to five years in prison.
We in the West are justifiably horrified when totalitarian governments censor the internet. We shouldn’t allow the US to join them.
I recommend reading what Wikipedia, Reddit and WordPress have to say about the bills. Also worth a look is the BBC’s roundup of today’s blackouts and Cracked’s ‘Only Argument on the Internet in favour of SOPA’.