AS you wandered around the Internet on Wednesday, you may have noticed that some of the sites you visited — Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, and a whole bunch of blogs — were not operating exactly as expected.
These sites, and many others, were all engaged in a blackout, a protest against some proposed legislation in the United States that is set to have a major impact on the way that the Internet works. So, the obvious question is, what’s it all about and why should you care?
The brouhaha is centred on a proposed law called the Stop Online Piracy Act (this is the name of the version of the legislation in the House of Representatives, the lower part of the U.S. legislature. The less onerous, but similar law in the Senate, the upper part of Congress, is called the Protect IP Act, or Pipa, not to be confused with Kate Middleton’s attractive younger sister). Essentially, the act — either Pipa or Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) — is intended to stop the illegal sharing of copyrighted materials like films, music and books.
Sopa and Pipa specifically target websites hosted outside the U.S. that carry copyrighted material which is aimed at consumers inside the U.S. There’s already a veritable thicket of laws that make it basically impossible to host a site inside the U.S. which provides access to pirated copies of films or songs. Any site that tries to do so is taken down faster than a skinny kid in a Tri-Nations rugby match. So what innovative pirates have done is to set up sharing sites outside the U.S., where the long arm of U.S. copyright law cannot reach them to shut them down. This is, at least to the U.S.’s powerful and wealthy media companies, an intolerable situation that must be remedied forthwith. Enter Sopa.
Originally, Sopa tried to fight foreign pirates in two ways. First, it created a legal basis for Internet service providers (ISP) inside the U.S. to block access to the Internet protocol (IP) addresses of foreign sites that are deemed to be targeting pirated content at Americans (this is, amusingly, exactly how China censors its Internet, requiring ISPs to prevent access to the IPs of sites deemed destabilising or dangerous). Pipa also originally tried to block IPs, but didn’t have any provisions aimed at ISPs. Second, Sopa and Pipa allowed the holders of the copyrights being infringed upon to get court orders preventing payment providers, advertisers and search engines from doing business with the pirating sites — in other words, U.S. companies couldn’t advertise on those sites, and search engines couldn’t link to them.
The ISP-blocking provisions in both acts created concern among Internet security wonks, because a lot of people have put a lot of work into making sure that consumers can have a secure, uninterrupted connection to a site they’re visiting (to protect, for example, Internet banking), which would be compromised by a parallel law that lets ISPs redirect you away from the IP you’re trying to get to, and so it was dropped. However, Sopa at least still requires ISPs to remove links to alleged pirate sites, and allows domain-name registrars to block foreign IPs.
Now, the reason that Internet companies are upset about Sopa, and to a lesser but significant extent Pipa, is because the definition of sites that are guilty of copyright infringement is slippery and the burden of proof is laughably low. Basically, Sopa allows for a kill first, ask questions later approach to copyright violators, although the current version is kinder than the original. What’s more, Sopa, in its current form, seems to make it the responsibility of ISPs and search engines to monitor closely the information packets that their users are sending and receiving, which should make everyone uncomfortable. The bill would also, theoretically, allow companies to remove links to sites that they think may be infringers. That would mean that Google could remove links to all video-sharing sites other than YouTube from its search because they might be dirty pirates. Obviously, this is the opposite of an open architecture and fair playing field online, but proponents of the bill argue that enforcement will be reasonable and sensible. This is, of course, debatable.
This fight is only the latest in a long-running battle between those who think information should be free and new models should be used to make money off content (think Spotify and Netflix), and those who want to protect the old-school media world that made them rich (think the Motion Picture Association of America). Whoever wins this round will be one step closer to creating the world they want. Either a world of open creation, sharing, and new, innovative models, or a world of powerful copyright protection and centralised control. Watch this space.