The Internet: the final frontier

By Dave Coffey

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Courtesy Flickr

Courtesy Flickr

This year, two extremely comprehensive pieces of legislation were introduced in the U.S. Congress. In May, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) was introduced in the Senate, and just over a month ago the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House. Both bills are a cohesive efforts to, as some legislators have summarized, “… prevent threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property …” In reality, however, these two bills are simply thinly-veiled attempts at iron-fisted internet censorship that, if passed, will reward the counter-innovative and stagnant tendencies of large corporations at the price of stifling free speech and undermining individual internet freedoms.

For those unfamiliar with PIPA and SOPA, the acts basically legalize blacklisting any website that is thought to be infringing on copyrights laws. PIPA would make it so that links and hyperlinks to allegedly offending sites would be disabled, while search engines would be legally compelled to disable access to the site associated with the offending domain name. SOPA would overturn a process established in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act wherein those alleging copyright infringement must first submit notices of infringement to websites that ask to take down the content in question. If passed, SOPA would simply give copyright holders the power to obtain court orders that legally force ad networks and payment processors to stop doing business with the website in question, effectively strong-arming them out of relevant Internet existence. Additionally, SOPA would elevate the penalty for streaming of unauthorized content to a felony.

One need only look at the proponents of these acts to determine their true motivation.

Support for both acts has been openly voiced by such entities as Viacom, NBCUniversal, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. Interesting, as these bills will give the government the power to feverishly protect corporate copyright interests by blacklisting offenders. It is plain to see that these measures are just more corporate knee jerk reactions.

Corporations in the entertainment industry still can’t figure out how to turn a profit to their liking in the digital age, so they’re resorting to politically sanctioned censorship in an attempt to turn out a few more bucks. While they claim to be protecting “economic creativity,” they’re really just equating a citizen who streams a copyrighted song with a murderer.

The acts have rightfully been met with loud opposition from various organizations, including search engine giants like Google and Yahoo!, as well as non-profit and advocacy groups such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has also been vocal in his opposition to the legislation.

In a press release on the issue, Wyden reiterated the fears of many – that these acts have very real risks that far outweigh the relatively minimal benefits. The Internet, arguably the largest source of free speech and expression in modern society, will be fastidiously regulated with corporate financial interests in mind. As Wyden puts it, “The collateral damage of this approach is speech, innovation and the very integrity of the Internet.”

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has also voiced disapproval of the potential ramifications of acts like PIPA and SOPA, claiming that these acts are “… simple solutions to complex problems.” Schmidt likens these measures to the heavy restriction of media outlets as seen in countries like China and North Korea, and believes that it could have results on free speech and innovation that are, in his own words, “disastrous.”

The chairman raises a valid point, namely that American digital and online legislation has notably informed and influenced international policy in the past. Setting these sorts of precedents for government-backed online censorship could very easily have extremely negative effects on other countries’ legislation, and on global Internet society as a whole.

As we have all seen, the Internet has become a place for the manifestation of major socio-political changes. However, if passed, these acts could also threaten the ability for the Internet to potentially act as a people’s check against government.

Take WikiLeaks as an example. These acts give the government the ability to legally take down an entire site if one of the domain’s pages contains content that could be alleged to infringe on copyrights. On a technicality, the government could potentially shut down an entire website under the guise of protecting intellectual property and “economic creativity.”

PIPA and SOPA also threaten to impede online innovation.

While heavy hitters like Google, Facebook and Twitter notably – and honorably – oppose these acts, it’s not these household names that have a lot to lose if these pass. However, less established social media and other online startups such as newer search engines will almost certainly be crushed by the effects of these pieces of legislation.

As www.americancensorship.com points out, many sites that are havens for sharing art, broadcasting news and organizing protests have plenty of potentially copyrighted material floating around as well. These sites would be very easy targets for big name corporations to shut down in one fell – and completely legal – swoop under PIPA and SOPA. Sites like Tumblr, Soundcloud and heretofore unheard social media outlets that could be extremely productive but don’t quite have both feet in the door would be on the chopping block.

A video on www.americancensorhip.com puts it very well: “[The Internet] is a vital and vibrant medium and our government is tampering with its basic structure so people will maybe buy more Hollywood movies.” While many might agree that intellectual property theft and copyright infringement are bad things, it seems a very simple truth that heavy-handed regulation and possible censorship is not the appropriate answer.

Like most legislation regarding online interactions, the perspective is shortsighted, and the language dreadfully ambiguous; this can and will be used for censorship. According to the Congressional Budget Office, PIPA alone with cost about $47 million to implement – it is absolutely despicable to even conceive of paying our government to censor us. The Internet as a source for the free flow of information must not be stifled for the sake of corporate interest and governmental sovereignty over individual expression.

Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]