The Internet has been buzzing for the past few weeks with news about SOPA and PIPA, two anti-piracy bills that have been on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively. As of January 20th, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act have been shelved for the time being, but the war on Internet censorship isn’t over.
A Good Idea Gone Bad?
Many worthy sources have explained these bills in detail, but at a basic level, SOPA and PIPA aim to combat piracy of copyrighted content. This means stopping illegal sharing of online content, especially movies and music.
Regardless of your stance on pirated media, the problem is how SOPA and PIPA intend to stop piracy. The bills propose allowing intellectual property owners “to effectively pull the plug on foreign sites against whom they have a copyright claim.” For example, the U.S. Attorney General could serve Google with an order to remove all links to a certain site from their search results if the site is suspected of using any images, video clips, or music from a copyrighted source.
As you may have noticed, there are some odd words in that explanation. The major problems of SOPA and PIPA are the vague definitions of terms like “foreign sites” and “suspected use,” which open the door to rampant abuse, suppression of free speech, and disruption of the Internet’s fundamental systems in dangerous and unpredictable ways.
Witch Hunts, McCarthyism, and Orwell, Oh My!
Discouraging piracy is a good goal, but it is no exaggeration to say passing a bill like SOPA or PIPA can quickly escalate to extreme Internet censorship and a devastating impact on the technology sector.
1) “The internet is about connections,” as Jeffrey Zeldman recently wrote in A List Apart. With SOPA or PIPA in place, thousands of legitimate articles and sites hosted on a platform like WordPress could be essentially blacklisted just because they have a nominal connection to another WordPress-hosted site that even potentially contains copyrighted material. This would destroy the open, social nature of the Internet as we know it, not to mention crushing the right of free speech for countless innocent individuals and organizations.
2) A gridlock on technology jobs (and innovation too). Under the regulations imposed by SOPA and PIPA, existing Internet companies who host or link to content would need to police all of that content, a burden that would cripple or sink many businesses.
Furthermore, these same regulations would significantly dampen the innovation economy in the tech world. According to a letter written to Congress by a group of founding Internet pioneers, SOPA/PIPA “will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure.” In other words, say goodbye to American jobs, ideas, and technological leadership.
As individuals who care deeply about the future of the Internet, its innovation and free speech, and as a company that builds web and mobile applications, we at Above the Fold strongly oppose SOPA and PIPA as currently written.
(Note: there are several other important reasons to oppose this legislation, too long to include here. These are simply the two that hit home for us.)
On January 18th, the English Wikipedia, along with Google, Reddit, and thousands of other websites (including ours) staged an Internet blackout. Some sites went dark, to symbolize what the Internet would look like under SOPA/PIPA. Others posted links to a petition against SOPA/PIPA, or images in protest of the bills.
The Internet outcry helped bring awareness to the White House and to many Congressional representatives that these bills are not the right solution, and within two days SOPA and PIPA were shelved in Congress.
For the moment, celebration is certainly due – not least because, in this case, U.S. representative democracy worked the way it was intended to: a bill was proposed and scrutinized publicly; constituents spoke out against it, and our representatives listened and acted accordingly.
“The Price of Internet Freedom is Eternal Vigilance”
The battle was won, but the war isn’t over. As Zeldman stated in a comment on his blog, “[t]he price of internet freedom is eternal vigilance” – these bills will certainly be back someday, in some other form, and we need to watch out for them. They may return as provisions tacked onto some otherwise innocuous piece of legislation, and the same lobbyists who spent millions pushing SOPA and PIPA will doubtless do so again. The thorny problem of piracy isn’t going away either, and future proposed solutions will merit the same scrutiny, to ensure that the right goals are being met while protecting the freedom and opportunity that we’ve built our lives on.
What do you think about the recent furor and the future prospects for legislation like this? Please send comments our way, and thanks for reading.