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Turn Off the Sites, Turn Up the Heat

The faceoff between SOPA/PIPA and the online community takes a turn.

By Uncategorized

The faceoff between SOPA/PIPA
and the online community takes
a turn with the involvement of
major forces in the web and
technology industries

On January 18, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other websites blacked out their content to mobilize protest against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act HR 3261) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act S 968), two controversial anti-piracy bills up for vote in the U.S. Senate that have been condemned as stifling and draconian by opponents. The online protest spurred three million people to email their congressmen, voicing their opposition the bills.

SOPA and PIPA are aimed at preventing foreign online piracy. The bills allow the Attorney General and copyright holders not only to censor web pages that allegedly infringe on copyright, but also to block whole domains and their web hosts. In addition, the bills place responsibility on the service provider to take action against any individual who “knows, reasonably should know or believes” that an infringement has occurred on another IP or domain.

If a website is accused of having infringing content, it has five days before it is taken down. The website can appeal this claim or remove the content.

SAIC Library Director Claire Eike has expressed concern with “the relentless trend toward stifling innovation.” With the boundaries of fair use consistently diminishing, she fears the “loss of our ability to share content freely. The laws we currently have are problematic, favoring distributors’ rights over those of creators, and undermining the public good. SOPA and/or PIPA would make it much worse.”

Supporters of SOPA include liberal stalwarts such as Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI), followed by most of the entertainment industry, including Disney and Hollywood. Among the detractors are many Tea Party supporters, such as the fiercely conservative Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), challenging traditional notions of conservatism and progressivism, and who stands for what.

Southern California lobbyists have contributed over $2.5 million in support of the bill and, until recently, the opposition has made little impact. The blackout January 18 displayed the effect innovation and communication can make, even against mounting economic support. On the same day Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), once a co-sponsor of the bill, blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for “pushing forward with a flawed bill.” Since the blackout, 18 Senators have withdrawn their support. By Friday, January 20, the Guardian had reported that votes on both SOPA and PIPA had been postponed indefinitely.

The blackout of the protesting sites was only one method of many used by the Internet giants. Google stated, “Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet.” Google did not participate in the blackout but censored its logo. However, Twitter, a vocal opponent of both bills, did not participate at all. Chief executive Dick Costolo tweeted, “Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish. … Not shutting down a service doesn’t equal not taking the proper stance on an issue.”

Proponents say the bill is aimed at foreign piracy. Domestic laws already exist for domains that end in .com, .net, and .org. Since last December the government has shut down 150 U.S. domains.

However, experts argue that SOPA and PIPA employ dangerously vague language and ambiguous definitions, which have led to claims that simple links to sites containing infringing material could be breaking the law. This is why critics are concerned that the bills will affect not just foreign sites but domestic sites as well.

Opponents state that the bill will impose impossible standards on startup businesses. The bill will make it difficult for many startups to compete, since it would take expensive resources to monitor user-generated content on their sites. Even though SOPA is targeted at foreign websites, U.S. websites will be punished by weighty costs in order to ensure their own SOPA and PIPA compliance.

The White House has recently criticized the bills. “Let us be clear, online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. … We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber-security risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

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