by: Max Coleman on January 18th, 2012 | 2 Comments »
I’m fairly certain that, as you read this sentence, you match a certain demographic. In fact, I can say with 100 percent confidence that you do. You are an Internet user and, by virtue of this fact, should be filled with tremendous outrage at the legislation that is set to pass in Congress.
The “Stop Online Piracy Act” (HR 3261), introduced in October, empowers copyright holders to seek punitive action when their material is reproduced online. Fair enough. But like much of the cleverly-worded legislation presented to Congress, this bill’s title is hardly reflective of its likely pernicious effect. (Remember Bush’s “Clean Air Act”?) What SOPA really amounts to is a destabilization of the Internet by corporate entities.
If this bill passes, the Department of Justice will not only be able to block access to offending content, but could also ban sites that link to such content. Search engines like Google – which links to and caches billions of websites – would be especially at risk. Tech blog Gizmodo writes:
The beating heart of SOPA is the ability of intellectual property owners (read: movie studios and record labels) to effectively pull the plug on foreign sites against whom they have a copyright claim. If Warner Bros., for example, says that a site in Italy is torrenting a copy of The Dark Knight, the studio could demand that Google remove that site from its search results, that PayPal no longer accept payments to or from that site, that ad services pull all ads and finances from it, and – most dangerously – that the site’s ISP prevent people from even going there.
One of the most striking aspects of the bill is the tension it creates between managers and users of community-based sites. In order that they not risk shutdown, site owners must constantly monitor their users in search of rogue content. Photo- and video-hosting sites like Flickr and Youtube, social platforms like Ning, and even major social networks like Facebook and Twitter would be forced to turn against their members to protect their own well-being. This means deleting user accounts without warning and without apology, whether or not those users have actually violated copyright law. Not only is the deletion of legitimate accounts a likely outcome of SOPA, but it is provided for in the bill itself. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Another dangerous provision … is the “vigilante” provision, which would grant broad immunity to all service providers if they overblock innocent users or block sites voluntarily with no judicial oversight at all. The standard for immunity is incredibly low and the potential for abuse is off the charts. Intermediaries only need to act “in good faith” and base their decision “on credible evidence” to receive immunity.
As we noted months ago, this provision would allow the MPAA and RIAA to create literal blacklists of sites they want censored. Intermediaries will find themselves under pressure to act to avoid court orders, creating a vehicle for corporations to censor sites – even those in the U.S. – without any legal oversight. And as Public Knowledge has pointed out, not only can this provision be used for bogus copyright claims that are protected by fair use, but large corporations can take advantage of it to stamp out emerging competitors and skirt anti-trust laws.
Although not explicitly laid out in the language of the bill, SOPA promises to curtail online activism, both in the United States and abroad. The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that proxy servers – which allow users to circumvent blocked domain names – would likely be banned. But it is precisely because of these servers that savvy technophiles in China, Egypt, and Iran are able to express anti-government sentiment and organize collective action.
Suppose that one day, the U.S. government decides that it wants to conceal its support for the atrocities committed in East Timor. (This is certainly possible – even today, few know of our involvement and the government has had little to say on the subject.) After making some counterfeit claim about intellectual property, the Department of Justice censors all material on the subject. With proxy servers also banned, Americans no longer have access to the truth. And similar atrocities can be perpetrated because the historical record has been wiped clean.
I give this example not because I hope to frighten you with Orwellian conspiracies, but because I want you to wake up. This grave and catastrophizing language is necessary because SOPA is both grave and catastrophic. And yet, along with the Senate’s “Protect IP Act” (PIPA), SOPA is very likely to pass unless you do something about it.
Fortunately, the activism around SOPA and PIPA in the past few days has been truly inspiring. Hundreds of companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google have spoken out against these bills. And more than 7000 websites are “going dark” today to raise awareness about the legislation, including, most notably, Wikipedia, Mozilla, Reddit, and MoveOn.org. Even WordPress is getting involved. And be sure to check out Google’s homepage.
To contact your representatives about this horrifying piece of legislation, just head to Wikipedia or visit the SopaStrike homepage. And most importantly – share this information with friends and make sure they get involved. The future of the Internet depends on it.
Max Coleman is a sociology major at Oberlin College, and a web editorial/social media intern at Tikkun. His research focuses on the intersection of social media and activism. Follow Max on Twitter @max_e_coleman.