How Congress Could Break the Internet
November 16th was the first ever American Censorship Day, in response to the House of Representatives holding their first hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an act drawing comparisons to the Great Firewall of China. (And the method that would be used, DNS blocking, is the same website censorship method used by China, Iran and Syria.) A similar bill is known in the Senate (in one of the most ridiculous acronyms ever) as the PROTECT IP Act, or Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011. I bet you expected the letter “I” to stand for Internet there; I know I did. Notice the need to point out that they are preventing “real” threats. The PROTECT IP passed a Senate subcommittee in just two weeks this May, but was held by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).
The Stop Online Piracy Act is backed by almost $200 million worth of lobbying, mostly from Hollywood, and would enable the U.S. government to blacklist websites that they claim violate intellectual property laws. Time Warner, Disney, and Viacom are some of the bill’s largest supporters, as they claim their massive profit margins have been negatively impacted by Internet piracy. In addition to the fundamental problems inherent in enforcing the blacklisting of websites that disseminate pirated content, there is an obvious slippery-slope argument against putting Internet censorship in the hands of the government, as it could lead to wholesale First Amendment rights violations.
Some of the bill’s strongest opposition is in the tech sector. Companies including Google, Yahoo, Twitter and Facebook sent a PDF letter to ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voicing “support for the bill’s stated goals” but strongly opposing the current version, which would “pose a serious threat to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation’s cybersecurity,” reports the Atlantic. Many experts claim that meddling with the Internet’s infrastructure by blocking domains will lead to a decrease in stability and security.
Meanwhile, Copyright Office director Maria Pallante issued a statement supporting the bill, stating, “It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail.” Maybe it’s time to realize that maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. U.S. copyright law was created long before the Internet existed, and perhaps needs to be updated to reflect modern realities. U.S. copyright law originates with the Copyright Clause of the Constitution (Article One, Section Eight, Clause Eight), which gives Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to respective Writings and Discoveries.” SOPA does not “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” it does exactly the opposite, all in an attempt to protect Hollywood profits. Maybe it would be more beneficial for the entertainment industry (RIAA in particular) to attempt to keep up with the times, rather than fight against them.
The way the PROTECT IP Act works would allow the government to not only remove sites deemed in violation of the law, but to censor links people send to such sites in emails and on social networks. In addition, the bill would make it a felony with a potential 5 year prison sentence (Wait, don’t we have a problem with overcrowded prisons already?) to stream a copyrighted work that would cost in excess of $2,500 to license, even for completely non-commercial users of sites like YouTube or Facebook. So the government could feasibly go after some girl sending her cover of a Justin Bieber song to her friends on Facebook. Or a family who posts a baby video that happens to have a Drake song in the background. It could erase entertaining videos like this from the Internet forever. That links could be removed or redacted could completely ruin one of the Internet’s important features — linkability — destroying the Internet as we know it. The act would also make it possible for search engines, blogs, etc. to be sued for containing links to offending material, forcing them to remove the links or face shutdown. Sites like YouTube would be responsible for everything users post; forcing them to self-censor or face elimination. Furthermore, companies could sue any site they claim isn’t filtering their content well enough, which doesn’t exactly promote growth.
Although some proponents of the bill claim it will save jobs, that statement is ridiculously myopic (at best) to the effect it would have on Internet startups, which (Hello!) create jobs. It could also have a seriously negative impact on currently functioning companies like Facebook and Google — companies who have been on the forefront of Internet innovation and who have, incidentally, created a ton of jobs. The passage of SOPA could further devastate an already fragile economy, and it is an obvious threat to First Amendment rights. To protest the SOPA go here.
There was widespread protest to SOPA all over the Internet yesterday, not all of it universally appreciated. In an effort to call attention to the issue, Tumblr covered their users’ dashboards with censorship blocks. When users clicked on their redacted dashboards, they were sent to a Tumblr political advocacy page opposing SOPA. Gawker, while pointing out their opposition to SOPA, offered a pointed attack on the methods Tumblr employed to get their message across, especially in light of what Gawker deemed the site’s past political apathy. While you could argue that Tumblr’s methods were heavy-handed and could be considered self-serving, it did help raise awareness and actually got a lot of people to voice their opposition to Congress. It’s hard to blame them for getting up in arms about an issue that could affect the whole of the Internet (Gawker included).
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