By Samantha Sanburn
The old saying “If you don’t know it, Google it” was not an option as Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other websites went dark for 24 hours in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) on Jan. 18 causing students everywhere to hit the panic button on their school assignments. Even Google’s logo was blacked out to show how the site could look if it was censored. When people clicked on the websites logo, it led them to www.google.com/landing/takeaction where they were asked to sign a petition that would contact their Congressional representative in protest of SOPA and PIPA. While banning online piracy is a noble cause, the U.S. government’s interference threatens to censor the World Wide Web and should be avoided at all costs.
SOPA, as a bill that could become law, is vague in its mission to stop piracy. It does not clearly define the way online piracy crimes will be handled, however minor they might be. If someone uploads a video of a copyrighted song to YouTube, are they to be criminally punished for a minor infraction? Would serious online piracy crimes such as the theft of inventions, technology, and data be punished as treason? There are current piracy laws already in place such as Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), passed in 1994. Texas representative Lamar Smith is the prime force behind the SOPA and PIPA bills in Congress. His camp claims that the American consumer is being threatened by the sale of counterfeit drugs that some of these popular websites ‘promote’ and it needs to stop. He also says user-run websites such as Facebook and Twitter have nothing to be concerned about. Yet, if Twitter user A were to post a link to copyrighted information, are they at fault for the link they post to their Twitter profile? The vague wording of the bill leads a lot to be interpreted by the American people and the government. By censoring websites and deleting domain names with copyright-infringing content, it completely tramples upon the very first amendment this country was founded on.
The Bill of Rights is not up for debate, nor should it be. As American citizens are entitled to petition the government, to peaceably assemble as well as the right to free speech, religion, and press; it deeply concerns the American people that these things could be taken away. If the government takes away the right to free speech, what’s next? As already seen with the Occupy Wall Street protests, some people felt that the government was interfering with their right to assemble. As it stands, Occupy Wall Street has calmed down. However, that does not give the representatives on Capitol Hill the right to take away free speech in place of the right to assemble that some people thought was being taken from them on Wall Street. Just like the Wall Street protests, the people took a stand and made sure their voice was heard. While some methods of protest were not always non-violent in nature, the government was finally listening. People were taking notice. In protest to SOPA and PIPA, people are once again taking a stand against the violation of their rights. By declaring “FREE SPEECH” as their battle cry, the people aren’t letting Congress destroy the First Amendment.
Destruction of the First Amendment leads to censorship. In response to the SOPA blackouts, Google placed a sloppy black banner across their trademark logo to protest. Internet censorship is the control of the information or ideas circulated via the internet. To censor information or ideas leads to the outcry of the people and in this case, SOPA has had some clear opponents. On Jan. 18, three representatives in the House of Representatives withdrew their support of SOPA once the widespread protest came to the forefront. Censorship has been a hot button issue for years. For example, in the past and present day Middle East, some governments there are telling the people what books they can and cannot read, what movies they can and cannot see, what they can and cannot say, how they can dress, where they can go, what they can do, etc. Many American people are repulsed by the thought of a dictatorial and often tyrannical regime like those in the Middle East. In these countries, the citizens’ rights are being taken away, if they have rights at all. The people do not have the right to free speech, free press or the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In many countries, attempting to sue the government is as good as signing your death warrant. Now, the American government has never been this extreme and our structure does not allow for the government to fall to the very radical side of the issue. Still, if free speech is encroached upon and the World Wide Web censored within the American borders, is the government just as tyrannical as the dictatorships of the world that limit what the people may know?
Wikipedia’s blackout page said: “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge” and they were right. Keeping the current online piracy measures in place has worked for the 17 years since TRIPS was signed into law. By censoring the web and hampering free speech, the government is giving Americans more ammunition regarding the repression of their constituional rights, in a similar way as was done on Wall Street during the Occupy protests. Instead, the government should aim at educating the American people to be wary of piracy while still understanding that there are serious consequences for using, distributing or possessing pirated information or materials. Everyone could be affected by SOPA; students, journalists, website owners, business people, and even sweet ol’ Granny who wants to post a video of her granddaughter singing to Lady Gaga’s newest hit single. Whether the copyright infringement laws crack down on YouTube or big names in the internet game like Google, everyone has something to say. While Lamar Smith and supporters of SOPA and PIPA are honorable in their intentions, to censor the web is a gateway to more than just protests from the people.