NASHVILLE, TN – If you’ve been on the Internet at all in the past few weeks, chances are you’ve seen posts or news articles about two piracy bills that are swarming around Congress: SOPA and PIPA. SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA is the Protect IP Act. While these bills may have good intentions – stopping copyright infringement – they could be detrimental to information sharing and the Internet as we know it today.
In a 24-hour protest on Jan. 18, many websites blacked out their content, including probably the biggest and most influential participant Wikipedia. Fight for the Future, whose tagline reads “a non-profit working to defend online freedom”, reports that more than 115,000 sites participated in the Jan. 18 blackout. Their numbers show the progression of Senators publicly opposing PIPA, which grew from one lone Senator on Nov. 16, 2011 to six on the morning of the protest. On the evening of the Jan. 18 protest, 34 Senators publicly opposed the anti-piracy bill.
You may have also heard that, for now, these bills have been postponed in Congress; they were scheduled for a Jan. 24 vote. It’s hard to tell if Congress has heard the pleas of many Americans to stop these censorship bills, or if the postponement is a way to shut us up temporarily. Will the bill slide back into Congress with revised text? Will they try to slip it by us?
Clay Shirky, in a very telling TED Talk (which I highly recommend watching), speaks about the history of copyright infringement legislation and its chilling future. He begins by explaining the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, which basically said copying content such as songs from the radio to share with friends is okay (i.e, making personal mix tapes). It also said that taping high-quality versions, making multiple copies, and selling these copied tapes is not okay. The media companies wanted Congress to stop all copying, but Congress didn’t go that far. Now media companies, especially those who produce music and films, are spearheading these anti-piracy bills once again with SOPA and PIPA.
Shirky states: “The real effects of SOPA and PIPA are going to be different than the proposed effects. The threat, in fact, is this inversion of the burden of proof, where we suddenly are all treated like thieves at every moment we’re given the freedom to create, to produce, or to share. And the people who provide those capabilities to us – the YouTubes and Facebooks, the Twitters and TEDs – are in the business of having to police us or being on the hook for contributory infringement.” Some businesses may not want the job of policing their content, which could result in the businesses walking out, leaving us no place to voice our opinions or share our findings.
In the same talk, Shirky also enlightens listeners to an even deeper-rooted problem that SOPA and PIPA propose. He explains how the bills threaten our freedom and an inherent human right: “And because the biggest producers of content on the Internet are not Google and Yahoo, they’re us; we’re the people getting policed. Because in the end, the real threat to the enactment of PIPA and SOPA is our ability to share things with one another. So what PIPA and SOPA risk doing is taking a centuries old legal concept – ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – and reversing it –’guilty until proven innocent.’”
The real problem, as Shirky so eloquently states, is that SOPA and PIPA will make everyone a criminal. Without a proper trial, without gathering significant evidence, the government would be able to shut down your blog or website. The government could shut down your favorite websites. Forgoing the foundation of our basic rights – our Sixth Amendment right to a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury and our First Amendment right to free speech – the government will be able to censor our content seemingly without reason and without a proper check of power. Shirky goes one step further, deducing that media companies don’t want us to produce, but only to sit on our couches and consume. The producing is what threatens their livelihoods.
The hacker organization called Anonymous has shown their disdain for SOPA and PIPA by attacking major websites. Anonymous supposedly hacked the Department of Justice in retaliation to the shutdown of Megaupload.com, a major file-sharing website, and the arrest of its operators. They also hit the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Universal Music, and the Recording Industry Association of America, according to a Forbes article. These organizations are supporters of SOPA and PIPA.
Facebook’s Washington, DC, office has a Facebook page where they discuss their views on these anti-piracy bills. While Facebook is sympathetic to the music and film industry on this copyright issue, they think SOPA and PIPA “are not the right solution to this problem, because of the collateral damage these overreaching bills would cause to the Internet.”
For now the bills are tabled, but Wikipedia writes, “SOPA and PIPA are not dead: they are waiting in the shadows.” This isn’t the end of the fight.
Master Google Ali Husayni has this to say about these two piracy bills and what they mean for website content sharing as we know it today:
“I’m all against piracy and hacking. But being raised in Iran, I’ve seen what censorship can do to freedom of the flow of information. You ‘censor’ only when you feel unable to verbally ‘engage’ and ‘encounter’ your opposition. Censorship by its very virtue puts you on the defense and the weaker position. And we don’t want to be portrayed as weak.”