You might have noticed today that some of your favorite internet haunts are looking kind of gloomy, and that’s because websites like Wikipedia, Google and Reddit are protesting two bills – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate - which they say would extinguish the creative fire of the web, hinder small sites with unmanageable lawsuits and undermine the security and safety of the internet as a whole. The bills are being backed by big entertainment companies that say they need more rights when it comes to taking down pirated content, which is a valid concern, but as one SOPA protest website explains, the legislation as it is currently written is like a chainsaw in an operating room — it is completely ineffective for the delicate job that needs to be done. In addition it could seriously inhibit freedom of speech on the internet, cause havoc in the online publishing world and be the reason for the loss of thousands of jobs worldwide.
In an open letter to Congress the founders of websites like Craigslist, Firefox, Google, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Youtube, PayPal, eBay, Wikipedia and even Arianna Huffington the co-founder of the Huffington Post stated their grievances against the legislation. On the surface, these bills aim to stop online piracy, which isn’t such a bad thing but when you look deeper it is revealed that Congress intends to use draconian measures in order to affect change — and that in some cases those efforts will be futile while causing untold damage. SOPA and PIPA take aim at websites like Youtube, Reddit, Twitter and other social media sites by allowing the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders to shut down websites, block advertisers and payment facilitators from doing business with the websites, force Internet service providers to block access and bar search engines from linking to those sites if even a shred of unauthorized copyrighted material is found.
The bills make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material a crime with a possible penalty of five years — this includes Youtube videos where a five year old kid is singing a rendition of a Michael Jackson song. The bills would not only affect the creativity of users but the free speech of the websites, service providers, advertisers and search engines.
The two acts would allow unfettered lawsuits filed on behalf of the entertainment industry against any website found to harbor unauthorized content. This would include anything anyone posted on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or even something someone posted in the comments of the tiny website run by the mommy blogger that lives next door to you. Imagine this headline: Columbia Records takes on mother with five children for posting unauthorized use of a Sesame Street song. Opponents of SOPA and PIPA say such lawsuits would deter new startups from forming in fear of being sued and would put current websites out of business due to legal fees thereby chopping jobs in a time when unemployment numbers run high.
The proponents of the legislation say that copyrighted content should be protected, while the opponents of the legislation say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that but that laws which are already on the books are sufficient. Current legislation legally requires websites to take down copyrighted material if the copyright holder specifically requests it. Websites like Youtube look seriously into these issues and remove all content found to be illegal. The person responsible for the content is the person who posts the unauthorized content, not the website that it is posted on. The new legislation, if passed, would place the onus on the website that harbors the content, even if they had no idea that the content was there.
“There are a lot of sites we see like Reddit or other social media sharing sites that started as grassroots startups. There were not a lot of users, they were independently funded and the reality of this is is that if SOPA and PIPA pass these user generated content sites won’t be able to exist,” Jacob Miller of the SOPA Blackout website told Inhabitat.com. “If infringing content is found on them, immediately, what happens is with these acts and provisions, the site domain name is seized and it is redirected to a page that says this website was seized due to copyright infringing content, there’s not a lot of due process there.”
Miller continued by saying that jobs would be lost at websites that were seized and startups that could create jobs would be too afraid to get into the business due to the fear of being seized. “It is scary for people creating their own websites that they could be shut down before they take off entirely.” Miller and his fellow SOPA/PIPA opponents note that though this legislation may seem entirely overreaching the members of Congress who are supporting it have special ties to the film and music industries that are pushing for it to be passed. “A lot of the people who are promoting this in the Senate and the Congress actually have huge ties to the Motion Picture Association and the Recording Industry of America and they are practically in their pockets books. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars simply to push this bill through,” Miller said. He continued by mentioning that a lot of those representatives and senators in Congress have mentioned success that China has in blocking copyrighted content as a great model for what we could do here. “They are saying, ‘Hey, listen, China has a great firewall filter and they are able to filter out plenty of content violations.’” With freedom of speech violations constantly popping up with the Chinese firewall, he notes, it is scary to think we would want to be like them.
The White House recently voiced their opposition to the bills saying that though protecting intellectual property is important it shouldn’t come at the cost of free speech or innovation on the internet. 115 companies in Washington DC are spending millions of dollars to sway the bills in Congress according to federal records. Though the sponsors of the bill say it is not aimed at small websites, opponents of the bill say the vague language included opens the door for a war against individual website owners and social media sites.