Wait what happened there last Wednesday on January 18?? All of a sudden several, popular websites such as the English version of Wikipedia, Reddit, wordpress blogs, even Google and other outlets went blank or rather black out of protest against two bills being potentially passed by Congress, so called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protecting IP Act). Now I had heard about SOPA prior to these drastic measurements (mainly thanks to Joel one of my Public Speaking students last semester who gave a passionate speech defending fair use and creative works online) that were hailed by a Columbia law professor in an New York Times article as “the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover.”
The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first; but I had honestly never really given it much thought. Yeah, it’s probably the same anti-piracy blahh that we’ve heard from movie and record industry executives and concerned senators and lobbyists since the early days of Napster. In short, boring same old complaints of “old” industries that have yet to be willing to change their outdated business models and catch up with new consumer demands in the World Wide Web version 2.0 and beyond. But apparently something really got those big media conglomerate bosses angry this time and after four years of constant lobbying they were effectively able to convince Washington bureaucrats to come up with those two, apparently really threatening bills.
After delving a little more into the topic this week, I was actually curious to find out what specifically is in those bills and what got all these creative, liberal, or even anarchic (help!) IT companies so upset about possible infringements of first amendment rights and the threat of eliminating U.S. jobs. So here’s a brief run-down/summary of what is actually being proposed:
SOPA: the bill is set to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Proposals include barring advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with allegedly infringing websites, barring search engines from linking to the sites, and requiring Internet service providers (ISP) to block access to the sites. The bill would criminalize the streaming of such content, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The bill grants immunity to ISPs that voluntarily take action against websites, and makes it possible for copyright holders to pay damages for false accusations. The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders against websites outside U.S. jurisdiction accused of infringing on copyrights, or of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. After delivering a court order, the U.S. Attorney General could require US-directed Internet service providers, ad networks, and payment processors to suspend conducting business with sites found to infringe on federal criminal intellectual property laws. More on SOPA can be found here and the entire document is available under this link.
PIPA: The bill defines infringement as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if “facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described.” The bill says that it does not alter existing substantive trademark or copyright law. The bill provides for “enhancing enforcement against rogue websites operated and registered overseas” and authorizes the United States Department of Justice to seek a court order against websites dedicated to infringing activities. More details here.
By chance, I also caught the following “heated” debate between Ben Huh, CEO of one of the participating companies, and NBC Universal’s Rick Cotton who was on one of the committees crafting the SOPA bill on PBS’s News Hour the day prior. Striking to me was that both participants were rather repetitively arguing in a very narrow way. Huh and other web activists stress that SOPA is censors the Web, is against the first amendment, fair-use doctrines, forces search engines to play policemen for a law they do not support, and kills creative web outlets by strangling innovation, and most of all is detrimental to creating U.S. jobs in one of the most vibrant sectors of the American economy.
Rotten on the other hand was quick to counter-argue that SOPA was specifically not intending to shut down American websites, but only those excessive, dangerous “foreign” websites making copy-righted material illegally available for U.S. consumption in massive amounts. Further, Rotten and supporters of the bill argue that by protecting intellectual property of content creators are critical to the economy’s long-term success and helps stop the flow of revenue to “rogue websites” and ensures that the profits from American innovations go to American innovators. You may catch the whole debate here: PBS NewsHour SOPA
Puhhh now what? All of a sudden a bill that had solid bipartisan support a few weeks ago is now under massive scrutiny and even the Obama Administration announced that it would not support the bills as they are currently written. Whether we are really witnessing the new economy’s rise against the old, as writer John Weisman postulates in the New York Times remains yet to be seen. However, something is clearly happening here regarding intellectual copyrights in the era of Web 2.0, something that may have been long overdue …
After Senate scheduled to vote on these bills on January 24th, voting has currently been delayed and the House seems to have backed off as well. Numerous websites have set-up petitions (Google’s is accesible here) that you can sign online or encourage users to email their congress men and women.
For further reading, I can recommend the following New York Times’ article A Political Coming of Age for the Tech Industry
Updates on the developments around SOPA and PIPA will follow as events are unfolding over the next few weeks.
BTW: I’m still working on the site layouts, so pardon if things still look like “under construction”