Unless you’ve recently embarked on an inexplicable hiatus from the World Wide Web, you will have seen the acronyms “SOPA” and “PIPA” plastered on the Wikipedia masthead, nestled in between memes on Reddit.com, or re-blogged amongst posts on Tumblr. Rallying together nearly every corner of interactive cyberspace in opposition, the proposed legislation (the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act) is being considered by Congress (SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate) in an effort to crack down on Internet piracy. Yet while the ostensible intent of the U.S. government is to give copyright and IP owners a greater capacity to go after foreign sites dedicated to the theft and sale of U.S. materials, the censoring impact these bills will have is self-evident.
SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives by House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) on October 26, 2011, while PIPA, its Senate counterpart, was presented by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on May 12, 2011. Both bills were put forward in their respective chambers with the support of about a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors who, since the Internet has erupted in seemingly unanimous protest, have lost one to two congressional supporters. Still, both pieces of legislation have thus far stood their ground in Congress, with “Hollywood” backing from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and companies like Nike, NBCUniversal and the NBA.
In fervent resistance and in an effort to notify and galvanize its users to take action, major sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress and Craigslist staged a “black-out” on Wednesday akin to sit-in protests, while Google censored the logo on its homepage. Even smaller-scale blogs and personal websites have joined in the fray by either posting their criticism of the legislation or completely “blacking-out” their own areas of the Internet in defiance.
If the two bills are indeed passed, this sort of online apocalypse could become indefinite. U.S. corporations and the government will have the unchecked right to seek legal action (without due process) against any website they determine to be either facilitators of or participators in copyright infringement. And while the underlying aim to curtail digital piracy seems to be noble in nature, the power granted to these entities will allow for the termination of any website that a private company (or the government) feels is breaking their copyright policies. This subverts any kind of Constitutionally-reserved right to trial and freedom of speech.
So how does this affect us — a generation of tech-savvy bloggers, Googlers and plain-old Wiki users?
For one thing, it may very well shut down any blogging platform or blog that has even a hint of copyright violation. Since U.S. government agencies and private corporations would have unimpeded discretion in deeming illicit the use of a particular logo, trademark, image, and so on and so forth, the possibility for litigation and subsequent liquidation is increased twentyfold. This means that major social networking sites like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook are at risk. Additionally, sites that might host prospectively infringing content like Vimeo, Etsy and Flickr could also face legal action from any competing companies that could claim promotion of or engagement with copyright infringement. Entire sites could be shut down if any one user chose to violate copyright laws. If that’s the case, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter will be no more.
Even media minor-leaguers like start-up companies and small business might end up hurting if a company felt (however falsely) that they were either a likely challenger for consumer attention or actually functioning as piracy hubs. Moreover, the start-ups that use mediums like Facebook to interact and communicate with a broader audience in order to increase the economic endurance of their operations will suffer significantly.
Working in tandem, SOPA and PIPA would also limit innovation in the online marketplace. Sites similar to Spotify, DropBox and MediaFire would be terminated at their inception simply as potential spaces for online piracy. To think that these bills would have existed in the days of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is a harrowing thought — what is the Internet without novel endeavors in user interactivity but a vast network of legal restrictions and limited information? To have these bills pass would be to regress decades in terms of high-tech modernization. Legislation such as this prompts us to reevaluate what the Internet’s role even is and whether control of such a chaotic and truly transnational medium is actually feasible.
What, then, is our part in preventing the passage of acts that would severely hinder online free speech and technological creativity as we know it? The answer is what our part has always been as Generation Y Internet users: an aware and active approach in fighting for what we believe is right. Becoming informed and informing others is the first and most crucial step in this undertaking, getting in contact with our congressional representatives and letting our discontent be heard loud and clear is a vital next step. Signing online petitions and utilizing the Internet itself to its global extent is additionally pivotal. Finally, we must remain aware and active.
SOPA and PIPA will not be the first or last attempt by the government and corporations to tangibly challenge a free and open society, but it can be the first and last attempt to bring about widespread online censorship while expecting us to idly stand by.
For more information and to sign a petition urging Congress to vote NO, go to https://blacklist.eff.org.