███████████████Posted: February 10, 2012
There is a good chance that until Wikipedia and thousands of other affiliated sites held a one day ‘blackout’ on the 18th January not many people had heard of the controversial American bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). Designed to do exactly what it says on the tin, the two acts are supported by a wealthy and increasingly politically influential Hollywood which appears to be unwavering in its desire to maximise profit and unwilling to alter its approach and embrace the benefits of the internet. Although now temporarily postponed, what exactly is all the fuss about?
Designed to combat copyright infringement and piracy, PIPA and SOPA would allow any American company, group or wealthy citizen the ability to shut down a website without due process when suspected of hosting copyrighted material.
It does not take a genius to work out that this would be bad news for the much vaunted Western guarantee; ‘freedom of speech.’ Whilst the acts have undoubtedly been introduced with the best of intentions in a bid to combat the estimated 95% of illegally downloaded music, the approach would be akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. Or, as Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Digital Agenda Commission said on Twitter: ‘Speeding is illegal too, but you don’t put speed bumps on the motorway.’ In other words, the collateral damage for any action taken against a website would be enormous and out of proportion.
As a legal and technical nightmare for many large websites the proposed legislation is so unworkable in practice that it could force internet favourites such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and WordPress offline. Required to monitor every posted link and upload, American companies would be responsible for essentially policing the internet and all their users.
Within dominant and largely uncensored search engines such as Google, PIPA and SOPA have not been well received. In protest at the prospect having to regulate search results and remove links to foreign websites suspected of distributing copyrighted information, Google openly supported the thousands of websites that were ‘dark’ on the 18th January. Although still available, the Google logo was ‘redacted’ and links were given to users urging them to contact their local political representative to make their objections known.
Likewise, Wikipedia caused momentary panic to thousands of students through being one of the most popular websites to ‘go dark’ in protest at PIPA and SOPA. Whilst there were ways around this blockade, all java-enabled desktop users were greeted with a black imagine entitled ‘Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.’ In a related message, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explained that Wikipedia was against the proposed legislation because it was ‘badly drafted’ and would be ineffective at preventing copyright infringement. Instead, Wales believes it would damage ‘the free and open internet’ as there was a possibility that SOPA and PIPA could be used as a stepping stone towards more repressive and controlling legislation.
It should be remembered that the World Wide Web is undoubtedly unique. Free from the control of any one nation, the internet is a lively area where any information, pictures and media can be shared seamlessly around the globe. Although daunting, this modern deluge of information has been invaluable to humanity. From enabling people to find the best car insurance deal to ensuring the survival of the Arab Spring protest movement through the use of social media, the internet serves as a tool of progression for mankind.
An attempt by the United States to enforce PIPA and SOPA would severely hamper this. Forced into a regulatory role, American companies would be required to censor the internet and as the world’s sole technological superpower this would naturally impact upon all other countries. For instance, France already has the Creation and Internet Bill whereby users are given a ‘three strikes’ policy when suspected of downloading copyrighted content before their internet connection is disconnected and disabled. Likewise, the United Kingdom has the largely hated Digital Economy Act, although this has yet to be passed into law due to a series of legal challenges.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a need to act against people who repeatedly distribute and download copyrighted content, the current brutal Hollywood-backed approach is not the correct course. In addition to charging a fair price to reflect the fact that consumers are no longer receiving a physical product when digitally purchasing media, governments around the world should begin to make better use of existing laws before bringing in draconian and overpowered measures such as PIPA, SOPA and the Digital Economy Act. As the world’s technological superpower and alleged guarantor of freedom, the United States must take the lead.
However, this does not mean to say that other countries should be afraid to act and seek a solution. Whilst usually lamented for being nothing more than a place for endless discussion, the European Union has been surprisingly decisive when the freedom of the internet is discussed. In a recent resolution that was almost certainly aimed at the United States, the EU stressed a ‘need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.’
In response to this resolution and a tidal-wave of public anger since January 18th, the United States Congress announced on January 21st that both PIPA and SOPA were to be suspended, pending further investigations. It seemed like the world finally had something to thank the European Union for. And then the secretive global ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) was signed in Tokyo only five days later by the very same European Union.
Let round two begin.