On Wednesday 18 January, 2012, a number of online sites staged a 24-hour internet blackout in protest against two pieces of US legislation passing through Congress. This action followed a community decision, after which the Wikipedia Foundation announced its support in taking a stance against the proposed legislation. Alongside Wikipedia (English), other sites involved in the blackout included Reddit, Moxilla, WordPress, TwitPic, MoveOn.org and the ICanHasCheezBurger network. Facebook, Twitter and Google, although not in favour of the bills, did not stage a blackout. However, Google (US visitors only) showed its support by partially redacting its logo which linked to an information source about the bills, with a petition and a message to Congress “Please don’t censor the web.”
Why the Fuss?
The bills in question are the Protection Against Online Piracy Act (PIPA), and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Although there are already laws in place that govern online piracy, these are more concerned with targeting acts of infringement. SOPA and PIPA on the contrary, are aimed at targeting the source. In other words, the sites actually hosting the unauthorised content. As most of these sites are outside the US, it is not easy to track and hold perpetrators accountable. These bills would give the US government the power to force US based companies, such as ISPs, payment services solutions, and online advertisers, to closely monitor their own services and cut off ties with any sites providing access to and/or profiting from unauthorised content. Any search engines, websites, blogs, forums etc. with links to such sites could be sued and removed.
Arguments in Favour of the Bills
Those in favour of the bills such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the MPAA argue that these overseas websites that profit from US IP content whilst operating in safe havens, are a major threat to the industry putting jobs and innovation of content at risk.
In a BBC News interview on 18 January, Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales did not disregard the importance of combatting online piracy stating there were already Acts in place to deal with this like, for example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1988 which was working quite well. He did not feel it was necessary to go down the road these bills intend and he described the bills as “sloppy”. Mr Wales suggested the focus should be going after the money rather than burdening everyone else, (ISP providers, websites, etc.) to take on board the responsibility of enforcement. In response, MPAA spokesman, Michael O’Leary described Mr Wales’ approach as “a half measure” stating everyone who plays a role in the internet has a responsibility in “making it safe and legitimate”, he suggested there was no willingness on the part of search engines to share in that responsibility.
Criticism Against the Bills
Those concerned about the consequences of the bills argue that they are ill thought out, stressing economic through to technical reasons why the bills should not become law. Arguments draw attention to the ambiguity of the wording contained in the bills which could make many social media sites look like infringers or innovative/pioneering websites be perceived as piracy havens because the nature of what they are about is simply misunderstood. Another concern is the impact such laws would have on the growing internet business. The bills potentially threaten new start-ups as the task of filter and monitoring their websites to comply with enforcement measures would raise entry costs and any sites deemed not to be performing these functions adequately enough could simply be shut down. This would make it more difficult for new search engines and social media sites to emerge. On the technical side, tampering with the web registry of domain names could threaten internet security and make the net much less stable.
A statement issued by the White House seemed to share some of above concerns. Although making it clear they agreed that “online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response”, the White House also stressed it would “not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”
It is difficult not to view those determined on seeing SOPA and PIPA passed through as a case of luddism, or a misguided fear of what’s new.
The US is an influential nation and if these bills became law, and other countries followed suit, what might be the likely impact to the growing global internet economy? According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, over the last five years, the internet accounted for 21 per cent of GDP amongst the G-8 nations, Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden. Does it really make sense to rush these bills through, just to pander to the obstinance of the US arts and entertainments industry without due consideration to the wider implications of such laws?
Under no circumstances is this article intended to undermine the problem of online piracy, but has the pros and cons for all stakeholders both industry and consumers/internet users alike really been considered? It seems yet again, we are witnessing the heavy hand of commerce in alliance with the law exuding its power, as the catalyst driving these bills is the perceived lost revenue to commercial interests in copyright. It should be remembered that they are not the only or most important stakeholders here.
A question worthy of far greater exploration is whether the prospective value to be gained by the arts and entertainments industry really outweighs the value of freedom of expression, creativity, economic and technological innovation, as well as the political and social empowerment, that the internet continues to bring about. This is a question of paramount importance.
It is also important to revisit economic models and explore options that would facilitate ways to limit acts of piracy. Work with content creators, consumers and the public at large, those who have engaged in acts of piracy, ISP providers, search engines etc.; essentially all stakeholders to figure out more efficient ways to address this issue. Are market models actually correct? Do pricing models reflect fair and reasonable access to content? If not, then how could we better serve this objective? The enforcement measures proposed by the bills means these costs will need to be recouped, and no doubt will be levied on the unit cost of content, ultimately to be borne out by the consumer. If pricing models are a contributory factor to acts copyright infringement, this is counter-productive.
It is not right that the interests of one stakeholder through undue influence take precedence over the interests of others, particularly when such partiality is likely to thwart freedom of expression, creativity, innovation, whilst failing to give due regard to the greater issue of public interest.
In the UK, concerns have already been vocalised over the impact of the Digital Economy Act, 2010. If SOPA and PIPA are successful in the US, will we also be heading this way?
The basic principle of a democratic nation awards all adult citizens in that society the right to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. This fundamental right should underlie any discourse engaged upon and should serve as the guiding principle in determining the best way forward. Let this right be exercised.
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