Could SOPA Mean Chinese-Style Control of the Net?
On Wednesday, January 18, 2012, Wikipedia and other websites shutdown in order to protest proposed legislation that would purportedly reduce online piracy by making it easier to shutdown websites offering illegal content. Both bills – the Stop Online Piracy Act link to (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate – are supported by the entertainment industry, news media, and certain technology firms. To date, 115 companies and organizations (companies like News Corporation and the Recording Industry Association of America) have spent millions of dollars in an attempt to persuade lawmakers to enact SOPA and PIPA. Other technology and Internet giants like Facebook, Wikipedia, and Google have expressed grave concerns regarding the chilling effect the proposed legislation will have on the future of the Internet.
How will SOPA and PIPA Combat Online Piracy?
Under SOPA and PIPA, a copyright holder would have the legal power to obtain a court order to force search engines like Yahoo or Google to remove links to sites that offer material that infringes on the intellectual property rights of the copyright holder. The legislation also requires Internet service providers to block access to these sites.
For example, if HarperCollins uncovers a website offering free scanned copies of one of their books online without their permission, they could use a court order to force Google to remove links to the site. Additionally, advertisers who use the site could be forced to stop doing business with them while service providers would be required to block access to the site.
Collateral Damage – SOPA, PIPA and Shutting Down Websites
While the intent of SOPA and PIPA may sound reasonable, the implications of the legislation for the sharing of information on the Internet has a number of activists rights advocates worried. Proponents of the legislation claim the primary targets of SOPA and PIPA are foreign websites that offer illegal copies of songs, movies, and other media for free. To date, the entertainment industry has been unable to effectively fight piracy of copyrighted content made available through these websites.
However, the implications of SOPA and PIPA would seem to reach beyond these kinds of websites to include others who link to or use implanted news feed, Youtube videos, or screen shots from other websites. Additionally, section 105 of SOPA allows the federal government to shut down a website if officials believe it endangers public health. The concern here is that websites offering alternatives to traditional medicine could be shut down.
SOPA and PIPA – What Worries Internet and Freedom Activists
In a similar vein, others like Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe have suggested the legislation would interfere with the free exchange of information that is vital to the web and freedom everywhere. For example, if blogs and smaller websites can be shutdown for embedding news feed or links to copyrighted material, the government could step in and simply shut these websites down.
To some, this recalls the Communist Chinese system where government bureaucrats have the ability to censor the web as they see fit. SOPA and PIPA would, in effect – so critics argue – create the same prerogative for government officials interested in clamping down on dissident views under cover of copyright infringement. In essence, SOPA and PIPA would create a firewall between US Internet users and foreign websites – the very thing Communist China has been criticized for.
Consequently, for many, what is at stake in SOPA and PIPA isn’t simply the future of the Internet but the future of freedom.