“Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.”
This heading appears on Wikipedia’s “black out” page
, which will remain active for the rest of the day. A link beneath this header leads all Internet users to the one only active Wikipedia topic of the day (for US users), which explains to users why Wikipedia is not useable for the next 24 hours.
The link is to an informational page
about the two bills which could be passed into legislature called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA). IP, as this page explains, is short for “intellectual property,” and both bills seek to censor certain aspects of the internet, specifically those concerned with internet piracy.
The purpose of both bills is to put a halt to copyright infringement by foreign websites, particularly those known for pirated movies and music. However, the ambiguous language in both bills is cause for alarm. In essence, if these bills were to pass, Congress would have the power to shut down websites that are suspected
of using inappropriate media without
due process. Opponents of SOPA and PIPA--such as Google, which has opted to raise awareness by censoring their logo today--argue that the most effective way to eliminate online piracy is “through targeted legislation that cuts off their funding,” and that there’s no reason “to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions of U.S. jobs.”
PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.
Perhaps just as alarming as the ramifications that these bills represent if passed is the lack of proper media coverage. Media Matters provided data from a study that was released on January 5th
, stating that, up to that point, “most major television news outlets -- MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have ignored the bill during their evening broadcasts,” and that only “one network, CNN, devoted a single evening segment to it.” Further along in the article, Media Matters also informs us that “ABC and CBS are listed
as supporters of the bill on the House Judiciary Committee website, along with Comcast/NBCUniversal (which owns MSNBC and NBC News), Viacom (CBS), News Corporation (Fox News), and Time Warner (CNN). Disney Publishing Worldwide, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation, which owns ABC, is also listed as a supporter, as are other Disney properties such as ESPN and Hyperion publishing.” So their lack of coverage on the issue, while irresponsible, is not terribly surprising.
One website, Govtrack.us, allows users to track the legislative progress of the bills. The SOPA tracking page
quotes the bill’s definitive purpose to be promoting “prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes,” while the PIPA tracking page
quotes PIPA’s purpose, specifically defining it as a bill “to prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property, and for other purposes.”
SOPA will be brought into the United States House of Representatives, while PIPA will be brought into the United States Senate. Both bills, if passed, could effectively crack down on Internet piracy, but many Americans believe the possibility for abuse is overwhelmingly substantial, most specifically as it could potentially violate the First Amendment. Finding heated conversation about SOPA and PIPA on the Internet is not difficult. A couple quick searches on Google will bring users to news articles and forum discussions galore. One user provided the following analogy
to describe the bills:
The burden created by SOPA is similar to saying to Xerox or Ricoh/Minolta that, as the owners of their leased machines, they are responsible for the IP content of all copies made on their machines deployed in the field. If someone copies a newspaper article to share with their class, it is fair use and legal. If another user copies the same article to promote their services, it is a copyright infringement and everyone in the ownership chain, from the copier company to the local leasing agent is now responsible for knowing the difference and may be shut down by the government if they can't prove compliance.
Web surfers will find a plethora of similar analogies, and while some may be more appropriate than others, newcomers to the debate are best served by reading up on the facts and then reviewing why certain sites like Wikipedia are so opposed to the language. “They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites,” Wikipedia explains. “Small sites won't have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn't being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.”
Wikipedia and Google are not the only websites participating in the Internet black out today, however, as other popular websites—such as the news site Reddit
and the blog sites Boing Boing
—are protesting SOPA and PIPA in a similar fashion.
Despite the fact that the Obama administration has stated it will not support the passage of either bill, the bills still have many powerful allies, according to ProPublica, a journalism website that is tracking the senators and representatives who support the passage of the bills. Supporters include author of the SOPA bill Lamar Smith, US Representative of Texas’s 21st District, and Patrick Leahy, US Senator of Vermont. And although the legislation has already been amended to eliminate some key components of the initial bill, many warn that this is just a tactic by supporters to make it seems as though an amended version is a compromise that works for both supporters and opponents. There are already companies (GoDaddy) and individuals (Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator John Cornyn of Texas) who initially supported the bills and have since rethought their stance, leading many to question the legitimacy of the bills as they are constructed right now.
Want to read more about SOPA and PIPA? Check out the resources below.
What do you think of the proposed legislation?
Congress, Can You Hear Us? [Google]
SOPA protests black out top Web sites [Washington Post]
REPORT: News Networks Ignore Controversial SOPA Legislation [Media Matters]
Sopa: Sites go dark as part of anti-piracy law protests [BBC]