Internet Censorship and SOPA

by Elaine Hirsch

What is the future of SOPA?

In October of 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with its Senate counterpart, Protect Internet Providers Act (PIPA). Ostensibly designed to strengthen legal responses against the illegal distribution of copyrighted material, these bills caused a firestorm in the internet community. Opposition to the bill focused on two points: the dramatic expansion of power that would allow the US government to take action against internet service providers for material posted by individuals using those providers, and the expansion of government power that would allow the US to take action against “online service providers, Internet search engines, payment network providers, and Internet advertising services” in other countries accused of engaging in illegal activities.

Supporters of the bills touted them as the next step in strengthening legal protections for copyright holders (for example film studios and software manufacturers) against the pirating of their material. Some criminology experts and opponents said that the bills are overgeneralized, and allowed draconian measures such as blocking an entire domain for the actions of one individual using that domain. In noting that the phrase “enables or facilitates” in the bill is so broad in scope that even email falls under the category of enablement, Techdirt analyst Mike Masnick makes an effective point: the entire internet—an interconnected network—by definition enables piracy.

Are SOPA and PIPA needed?
On January 19, 2011, as sites such as Wikipedia initiated a blackout in protest of the bills, the U.S. Department of Justice was engaged in shutting down Megaupload, one of the world’s largest file-sharing services of copyrighted material. Two years earlier, in November 2009, the Pirate Bay, another site famous for file-sharing of copyrighted material, was the subject of blocking by a number of countries in Europe and Asia, and the owners taken to court. These famous cases strongly suggest that existing measures are fully adequate in providing authorities all the power needed to take action against sites engaged in illegal activity.

While the bill has been withdrawn for revision, it is by no means dead. A number of companies such as YouTube and Google support alternative legislation such as Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), legislation designed to protect “Fair Use” policies while targeting more specifically those individuals engaged in illegal activities, without the sweeping new powers contained in SOPA. It is possible that free speech advocates and those interested in providing the government additional powers to shut down illegal sites may come to a consensus and come up with more effective legislation. One thing is clear, the two sides are far from finding that consensus at present.

Elaine Hirsch, Kmareka’s West Coast correspondent, blogs as a labor of love.

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