If Wikipedia’s blackout last Wednesday forced you to discover either the Vanier or Webster libraries for the first time, you were affected by the protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA.
Let it be known that I’m not a law student, an expert on intellectual property or even 100 per cent sure about the inner workings of SOPA, but I am an avid Internet user and I know that I should fear the bill’s repercussions, should it become a law.
The controversial bill was proposed by U.S. Representative Lamar Smith and 12 co-sponsors on Oct. 26 last year. In a nutshell, SOPA is designed to pull the plug on any foreign websites that harbour copyrighted material. It’s a good idea in theory: the American government wants to protect the entertainment industry from piracy. But Homer Simpson reminded us that “In theory, communism works. In theory.”
The backlash against SOPA reached its peak last week: websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, Yahoo and eBay, among others, all voiced opposition to the bill and took part in “Dark Wednesday”. More than 115,000 websites participated in what is being hailed as the biggest protest in Internet history. The numbers speak for themselves: Wikipedia claims that 162 million people viewed its blackout page. In comparison, the 2011 Super Bowl had 111 million viewers.
The blackout worked. On Jan. 20, Smith backed down from his hard-line stance: “The House Judiciary Committee will postpone consideration of the legislation until there is wider agreement on a solution,” he said in a statement.
The bill is down, but not out. If it pulls through, will Canada be spared? Of course not. Because domain names that end with .com, .net and .org are considered American under U.S. law, they would have jurisdiction over many foreign websites. “The American Registry for Internet Numbers allocates IP addresses for Canada […]. However, under SOPA, the IP addresses it allocates would be considered “domestic,” i.e., U.S. IP addresses,” said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa to CBC.
I truly believe in rewarding artists for their work, but SOPA will not prevent piracy, it will only fan the flames. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 was designed to punish those who circumvented measures that control access to copyrighted material: hackers figured out how to copy DVDs, jailbreak cell phones, you name it. When the first file-sharing sites were shut down, torrents popped up. Because American law enforcement doesn’t have the same tools to fight piracy abroad as they do domestically, they aren’t realizing how powerful their legislation is.
Internet policing isn’t the United States’ mandate.
SOPA will destroy innovation, hinder free expression and severely compromise the Internet’s security. Using social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter invariably means sharing some copyrighted material, and you could be punished for that, making you liable for damages and legal costs. The bill’s wording is extremely vague: users can be penalized for unknowingly being associated with “rogue websites.” Even if a website is legitimate and one user posts an illegal link, the entire site could be shut down. Think any site that operates on user-generated content: YouTube, Vimeo, Tumblr, etc. They would shut the site down first and ask questions later. If you thought censorship was bad in Fahrenheit 451 that is nothing compared to this.
Why are 70-year old men implementing laws that are aimed at punishing a fraction of Internet users, but will end up affecting all of us? While SOPA is being pushed through the House of Reps., PIPA, a similarly controversial bill, is being pushed through Senate, where older politicians have no idea about the ramifications for Internet users. “The techno-ignorance of Congress was on full display. Member after member admitted that they really didn’t have any idea what impact SOPA’s regulatory provisions would have on the DNS, online security, or much of anything else,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center after the Nov. 16 House Judiciary Committee hearing.
The recording industry has been suing people left and right for the past decade in an attempt to stop piracy. File sharing hasn’t stopped and no piece of legislation can do so. Piracy is a part of the Internet that comes with doing business and we have to accept that, just like we accept that shoplifting is a part of owning a shop. Artists now have more ways than ever before to distribute their content; it’s up to them to get creative and beat the pirates at their own game.
Killing YouTube won’t put more money in the pockets of your favourite artists; when Megaupload, one of the most popular file-sharing sites in the world, was shut down last week, musicians and movie studios whose content was being stolen didn’t suddenly get any richer.
The MPAA and RIAA need to revamp their business models and find better ways of getting content to us. You can’t eliminate piracy, but you can mitigate it by increasing availability and decreasing costs, just like iTunes and Netflix have proven.