Five reasons the Internet’s still protesting SOPA and PIPA
Over the weekend, it seemed like the anti-SOPA forces had won. The House temporarily shelved the Stop Online Piracy Act. The Senate sponsors of the Protect IP Act agreed to review the most controversial provisions. So why’s the Internet still so mad? Here are five reasons:
1. The anti-piracy bills aren’t dead yet. True, the legislation’s House and Senate backers said they’d review a controversial provision that would de-list rogue sites from the Domain Name System (DNS). That was a huge deal. Under this measure, blocked sites would still technically exist, but they couldn’t be easily accessed by U.S. browsers, a move that critics warned could fracture the neutral architecture of the Internet and cause security problems. Here’s the catch, though: The congressional backers haven’t abandoned these provisions outright — they just want more time to study them. The Senate bill is still scheduled for a vote next week. As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pointed out yesterday, it’s premature to write an obituary for SOPA and PIPA.
2. Even without DNS-blocking, they say the bills would still impinge on free speech. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Freedom Foundation points out, SOPA and PIPA don’t just target foreign Web sites that are involved in copyright infringement. The legislation also target sites (foreign or domestic) that discuss how to access said sites — or sites that offer tips on how to circumvent the government’s censors. Critics have called this an unconstitutional move against free speech and note that the sweeping censorship could harm key open-source software innovations. What’s more, the bills could also, in theory, outlaw tools that activists use to get around Internet censorship in Iran and China.
3. The bills put a crippling burden on intermediary sites like Youtube and Facebook. Although the language in the bills is fairly vague, many experts argue that SOPA and PIPA would force U.S. companies like YouTube and Facebook to spend time and effort policing their own sprawling sites for infringing material. (Right now, those companies merely have to remove any offending content once notified.) Now, that sort of costly legal liability might not be a huge deal for a mega-company like Google. But smaller Web sites getting off the ground probably will find this burden too much to bear — which could, in turn, make it harder for the next generation of YouTubes from ever getting funded.
4. The bills allow sites to be taken down without legal oversight. As Public Knowledge has pointed out, one little-noticed provision in both PIPA and SOPA would grant Internet service providers broad immunity if they voluntarily block perfectly innocent users or Web sites from the Internet. Copyright holders like the movie and record industries could draw up sweeping lists of sites they didn’t like (even sites that should be protected under fair use) and pressure Internet service providers to take action. As long as the providers could claim they were acting “in good faith,” those sites and users could be blocked without any oversight by the courts — all because Hollywood was feeling a bit vindictive.
5. Copyright holders already have the power to take down offending material. One big question about the bills is what problem they actually solve. Copyright holders such as the the record and movie industries currently have the legal authority to force sites to remove infringing material under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s notice-and-takedown procedures. Now, the content industry says that it doesn’t have nearly enough weapons — every time it cracks down on a pirate site, five more appear in its place. But, if anything, there’s a case that the content industry currently has too much power. The Justice Department has often proven over-aggressive in taking down domain names — read, for instance, the gory details of the Justice Department’s botched attack on Dajaz1.org, a music blog that was taken down for a year after being falsely accused of infringement.