Quick, what do the People’s Republic of China, Soviet Russia (along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact states), Iran, and Britain in Orwell’s 1984 all have in common? They all censor ideas that they don’t want their citizens to hear about. Soon, if the US Congress gets its way, the United States could join this list. Quite frankly, I have no idea what is running through the minds of Senators and Representatives this season; Congress can come up with some strange stuff, but the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act (SOPA’s Senate counterpart) are genuinely Bad Ideas. In fact, if these bills become law, it’s easy to see how we could have censorship of American media just as it was censored in those cases.
Continuing on the theme of taking away our Due Process rights, SOPA/PIPA open a new, perhaps even more chilling, front in the Congressional assault on our civil liberties. As stated at the beginning of the previous post, I am not intending, by writing these words, to become “just another loud voice” yelling in the blogosphere. As always, I back up what I write with references to what is being said elsewhere, all while presenting my take on the issue at hand. Make no mistake: our right to say whatever we want, to be free to find alternative sources of information and form our own opinions on the events of our time, in essence, to do what you are doing now by reading this and I am doing by writing it, this is all being threatened. As a blogger, freedom of speech is my lifeblood; without it, this blog would not exist. Because of that fact, this post will probably be one of the most passionate posts I have ever written; consider yourselves warned, and read on if you dare…
How it Works Now
The Stop Online Piracy Act and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, sound harmless in theory, even something you might want to support. As someone who, in an ideal world, would make a living based on writing, I am in favor of protecting Intellectual Property; after all, I spend perhaps too much time on these posts when I am inspired to write one; where would the motivation to write, much less eventually make a living from writing, be if there were no protections against someone taking a script they wrote to copy my post and pass it off as their own? It is with this in mind that the authors of SOPA and PIPA have brought these bills into debate. As the saying goes, however, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; these bills, or should I say abominations, are no exception.
A brief digression, however, is in order; seeing as much of Congress doesn’t seem to know how the Internet works, I should clarify a few things. First, the “social web”, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and so on, all those buttons on just about every webpage today, are built on sharing. Such sharing does not violate the law; it could be said that President Obama could not have gotten as much support as he did in the campaign without those little buttons. Hell, Viacom, Universal, et al, the major music labels and movie studios all to some extent rely on this sharing to promote their artists’ latest works. Behind all this sharing is, ultimately, a link to content somewhere else on the internet. Where we start to have problems with it is content that may be infringing someone’s copyright. Keep the uncertain may in mind for a bit; it is quite important as far as this debate goes.
A Trojan Horse Attacking Our Civil Liberties
SOPA and PIPA are, first and foremost, intended to strengthen existing copyright law, in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, known commonly as the DMCA; though very few people if anyone would argue that the DMCA is perfect, SOPA and PIPA are the wrong way to go about it. Quite simply, they are too broad and too much of an attack on our right to freedom of speech. I had a long writeup about a potential case that could happen to any of us under SOPA or Protect IP, but this video from AmericanCensorship.org explains it much more concisely (and uses neat graphics! Who doesn’t love those?)
A potentially infringing site could theoretically continue to exist, but as mentioned in the video, payment networks such as Visa and MasterCard would be able to block any payments to the site owners, Google and other search engines may be forced to “de-list” the site, making smaller sites basically invisible, and all ad revenues would vanish as well. Oh, and the counter-notice period under the DMCA is shortened from 10 days to 5, and oh by the way, the payment networks and so on would not be required to reverse their actions. As we saw with Wikileaks, without a legal order to lift such restrictions, they won’t be lifted.
In essence, SOPA and PIPA would require sites to be extremely proactive in monitoring content, so that they could avoid Wikileaks’ fate. It is this fact that has caused almost everyone in Silicon Valley and the United States tech startup scene to speak out against it, saying in effect that sites like YouTube and Reddit could not have been created under SOPA/PIPA. Do we really want to be enacting legislation that could constrain economic growth at a time like this? More importantly, and a factor that has not been addressed nearly enough, is how this legislation could be used to censor the Web itself.
Imagine, for instance, a blogger receives proof of corruption in the government or proof of something that is in the public interest to get out, but the government doesn’t want it to. How easy do you think it would be to get the site blocked in the United States? It wouldn’t be very difficult at all; as we’ve already discussed, someone could allege that their rights were infringed and that said site is hosting illegal content. Just like that, no more damaging information. There are penalties under the DMCA for filing false notices, but they don’t seem to stop anyone who is determined. For instance, take the developing case of Megaupload v. UMG. In this case, a bunch of high-profile artists made a video promoting MegaUpload; legally everything was squared away, MegaUpload got the rights to the song and everyone was happy.
Everyone, that is, except Universal Music Group, who filed a bogus claim with YouTube that the song infringed their intellectual property. It didn’t, and MegaUpload filed a counter-notice with YouTube which put the video back up as the DMCA requires. UMG then re-filed and took the video down again; the matter is now headed to the courts and should be interesting to watch, but this paints a disturbing picture about how easily the law can be abused without much consequence. Mind you, this is under the relatively generous DMCA; under SOPA/PIPA MegaUpload and/or YouTube could’ve been cut off after the repeat notice.
If SOPA/PIPA are allowed to become law, it will have a chilling effect on anyone who creates any sort of content, from your little sister singing along to Taylor Swift and posting on YouTube, to whistleblowers, to bloggers and anyone providing an alternative perspective on the events of the day. Make no mistake: CNN, The New York Times, and other mainstream media all have the legal and financial pockets to be able to continue as they are in a post-SOPA/PIPA world. But do we really want an America where a pro-corporate, pro-government media with the resources to effectively counter any claims against them is the only one permitted to exist, or do we want an America with as many viewpoints able to be heard as possible, one that encourages innovation and bold, new, different ideas rather than squashes them under the weight of a corporate legal department?
My vote is with the latter. If you agree with me, write/e-mail/call your Senators and Representatives and let them know how you feel about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Perhaps most importantly, tell your friends to do the same, and together we can beat this and prevent censorship from coming to the United States.
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