You may have noticed that on Wednesday, the internet was immersed in a fit of protests: The Wikipedia search engine was replace with a message opposing internet censorship and links to contact your local representative, Google’s logo was blacked out, and other sites like Reddit and Craigslist went dark – all in protest of the SOPA and PIPA bills on the agenda for consideration on Jan. 24.
What do SOPA and PIPA mean?
SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is being discussed in the House of Representatives, while PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) is discussed in the Senate. Both are bills intended to prevent internet users from accessing overseas sites (like Sweden’s ThePirateBay.org) that infringe on U.S. copyrights. They propose that the U.S. Department of Justice be able to require service providers to block domain names (which are links to specific sites, like microsoft.com) of copyright infringing sites. Under the legislation, rights holders could seek court orders requiring payment providers, advertisers, and search engines to stop doing business with infringing sites. The measures would result in funding cutoffs for the accused sites, and removal of all search links to them.
That seems okay enough, so what’s the big problem?
Ambiguity. None of the SOPA founders have defined what qualifies for a “foreign infringing site” or what “committing or facilitating” copyright infringement truly entails. Similarly, PIPA is limited to sites with “no significant use other than” copyright infringement – but who really knows what that means? The vague diction leaves many sites vulnerably and at risk of legal jeopardy and would require user-generated sites (like Tumblr) to closely monitor user behavior. Another foreseeable problem is that measures to get sites blocked or blacklisted are relatively simple – while refuting accusations is remarkably difficult. Standards in the legislation are wide raging and open to abuse and could result in collateral damage and censorship.
Who’s for it? Against it?
Big media companies (including Time Warner, MPAA, Activision, NBC, Viacom, and RIAA) seem to be in favor, citing that intellectual property industries provide 19 million U.S. jobs and make up 60% of our exports. Supporters of the bills say online privacy steals the rightful income of content creators and dismiss accusations of censorship – insisting, rather, that the legislation is meant to “revamp the broken system which doesn’t prevent criminal behavior.”
Opposed are the more tech-oriented companies (sites like Boing Boing and the previously mentioned Reddit, Wiki, and Craigslist). Notably, Mozilla, Craigslist, eBay, Google, Twitter, and Wiki wrote an open letter to Washington outlining their stand against the legislation.
So what happens now?
After the startling support for protests headlined by Google and Wiki, which included countless phone calls, e-mails, and video messages to Representatives across the country, many Congressional members have withdrawn their support of the bills (Senate cosponsors Blunt and Rubio, Representative cosponsors Terry and Issa) or have come out in opposition. Even the White House released a statement that they would not support SOPA. In light of the protests, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (who originally proposed SOPA) have announced that Congressional consideration for the bills has been put on hold, indefinitely. Though this is good news to the bills’ many opponents, Smith intends to go back to the drawing board and come up with a revamped bill to present to the Judiciary Committee in February. The battle continues…