Imagine a country where the government is able to shut down Web sites at the slightest provocation, where elected representatives invoke fears of "overseas pirates" to defend the interests of domestic industries, and where Internet companies like Google must cave in to the demands of government censors or risk being shut down.
No, we are not talking about China, North Korea or Iran — we are talking about the United States, where legislators in both the House and Senate are attempting to push through new anti-piracy legislation by year-end that would benefit Hollywood at the expense of Silicon Valley.
Unlike other, more confusing efforts to regulate the relationship between content providers and other Web sites, opposition to the new Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation has led to a unified front within the tech community. Some of the most powerful players in Silicon Valley — Google, Facebook, Zynga, eBay, Twitter, Yahoo, and LinkedIn — have made their opposition to the bill public, even going so far as to take out full-page advertisements ("We Stand Together to Protect Innovation") explaining their position. Companies like Tumblr and Reddit that benefit from user-generated content have gone one step further, with highly publicized efforts to show users why it is important to speak out against SOPA. (Full disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.)
The anti-piracy legislation in the House, which has companion legislation known as "Protect IP" in the Senate, has picked up the support of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and even the International Association of Firefighters. The legislation is a ham-handed effort to shut down Internet piracy anywhere on the Web, but it confuses "piracy protection" and "censorship." The bill also showcases a failure on the part of lawmakers to understand how the Internet works. Under SOPA, any site that contains user-generated content, such as Flickr, Etsy or Tumblr, could be found liable for copyright infringement and be forced to shut down until the offending content has been removed.
There is obviously a lot at stake, and it goes far beyond a tally of dollars and cents lost to piracy.
This new legislation, if enacted, would strike at the very core of the way the Internet has been structured. Sharing, openness, and participation are at the core of what the Internet represents. When it comes to a choice between an open Internet and an Internet of walled gardens patrolled by government censors, there is no doubt which is preferable. As Booz & Co. pointed out in a recent study, the SOPA legislation could lead to a decline in Internet innovation.
The Chinese government attempts to portray dissidents as "pirates" and "rogues" outside the system. Entertainment interests are taking a similar approach, and have found what they consider to be the perfect bogeymen: the "rogue" sites and "overseas pirates" who steal content and make it available elsewhere on the Internet at a cheaper price. Under the cover of protecting intellectual property and making the Internet safe again for users, they risk destroying what makes the Internet so special and attractive to innovators and investors alike.
Certainly, a lot has changed on the Internet in just the past year. We have seen how bureaucratic, despotic governments in the Middle East have attempted to silence the majority through control of the Internet and how hacktivist organizations are ready, willing and able to go after government bodies that do not embrace the transparency of the Web. The new SOPA bill may not "cripple the Internet" as some have suggested, but passage would send a strong message to the world about the way the U.S. really views the flow of information, data and content across the Web.
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