Protecting the Internet and ourselves


If you tried logging on to the popular online encyclopedia website Wikipedia on Wednesday, Jan. 18, you probably saw its blackout in opposition to two specific pieces of legislation in Congress.

The stated goal of these two bills, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” (PIPA), is to help companies and individuals protect their intellectual property from websites based overseas. In reality, these are poorly written pieces of legislation that would be ineffective at their stated goal and have major consequences for the Internet as we know it today.

The bills would block access to websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement — selling bootlegs, distributing copyrighted material they don’t have the right to, etc. — but a SOPA provision allows the government to target additional websites that provide information to work around the censorship through links or software.

According to the language in the bill, websites such as YouTube or Facebook, which are built upon people posting their own content, would have to constantly monitor all of their users’ content to make sure they are in compliance. Unsurprisingly, this would be an incredibly costly endeavor that few sites could afford, choking out innovation on the web.

More disturbing is a provision found in both bills, which allows Internet service providers to block users or websites voluntarily without any judicial oversight. As long as the provider acts in what the bills describe as “good faith” with decisions based on “credible evidence” they cannot be prosecuted.

Thus, it would fall to the website to prove they were wrongfully accused and blocked, running counter to the American ideal of “innocent until proven guilty in court.”

As a result, not only would the movie and music industries be able to demand that service providers block specific sites, but SOPA could also be used to choke out competition among businesses.

Imagine if you had Comcast for your Internet and cable service, but wanted to watch some programs on a streaming Internet video service such as Hulu. Comcast could claim that Hulu is infringing on its business and block the website. It’s an extreme example, but that is the sort of thing possible under this legislation.

I don’t know about any of you, but I find the idea of giving a corporation power over free speech rather disturbing.

Another provision in the bills would give the Attorney General the power to block domain name services and de-list them from search engines, which effectively translates to shutting down websites based in the U.S.

Aside from being the same sort of thing governments in China, Syria, or Iran do, opponents to the bills say it would open up users to more cybersecurity threats as site owners shift their networks outside of the government’s control.

The bills would also set a precedent for government interference in web content. Even if the aim is foreign websites, the First Amendment protects Americans’ rights to access foreign speech, which this violates.

Even the White House takes issue with these bills, with the president issuing a veto threat against any bill that “reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, global Internet.”

SOPA died in the House last week, but could still resurface. A competing bipartisan bill, known as the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade, or OPEN Act, is more sensible. It focuses its efforts on pirates specifically by choking them out financially, following the money trail to its source and cutting it off. It’s the difference between using a rifle to hunt a deer and using a nuclear bomb to blow up the woods —you may still get the deer, but you’ve done a massive amount of damage in the process.

OPEN still needs work to make sure it focuses precisely on what it needs to, but it is a viable starting point for effective discussion.

Therefore, it is vital that everyone who opposes this sort of thing contacts their Congressional representatives’ office, or at minimum emails them and makes sure they understand why they should not support PIPA or SOPA. That would be Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, as well as Rep. Dan Benishek for the bulk of this paper’s readership.

Levin’s office number is 202-224-6221, while Stabenow’s is 202-224-4822. Benishek’s office number is 202-225-4735.

I oppose corporate interests crushing innovation and free speech, and anyone who shares my view should join this fight.



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