Have you heard of SOPA? How about PIPA? Chances are that after January 18th you will have done, as that’s the day Reddit, Wikipedia and some of the web’s biggest forces are planning to blackout in protest of proposed US bills that could destroy the internet as we know it.
Their side of the story
Intellectual property has always been a bit of a minefield online. The courts are at the disposal of anyone who wants to settle a score, but the international law is sticky enough that Hollywood studios and record companies can only really go after individual downloaders rather than the websites that provide the content – or location of it.
With thousands of people pirating copyrighted material every day, you’re looking at a huge legal bill if you plan on going after everyone. But what if the law was changed? What if these massive companies could attack the source of IP theft by going for the throat of the enabling websites and shutting them down for good?
That’s essentially what both the SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills are about, and they’re each scarily close to being passed in the US. Congress is considering it at present. If either one passes, they’ll do so without much in the way of opposition coming from within the house, which means Obama is likely to sign it into law.
But these bills passing will have huge implications for both the internet and the real world writ large. They will give the owners of intellectual property absolute power to shutdown and blacklist websites, without a chance for the website to represent its side of the argument. It will lead to a state of play where there’s no real limit to what can be censored and what can be shut down.
If Sony BMG or Warner Bros can finally shut down the Pirate Bay, for instance, who’s to stop them then going after every act of copyright infringement – no matter how small – by shutting down the ‘guilty’ websites left right and centre? What happens when they mistakenly assume content has been pirated, as they have before.
The ramifications could lead to Facebook, YouTube and Google having to censor you rather heavily. A court case has already ensued on one hapless parent who uploaded a video of her baby with music playing in the background. If that’s the level the multimedia conglomerates are willing to stoop to, it’s curtains for the free web.
News sites will have to adapt, too. No one will ever be able to explain the procedure of copying discs or hacking or anything untoward in any online forums again. Fair enough, you might think, but at its base level that’s heavy censorship.
Traditionally, the web has been the one place where censorship doesn’t get a look in. That ethos changing goes against the internet’s fundamental principles.
It’s a massive international issue, and it would all be because the US senate chooses passes a couple of bills in the name of putting a few more quid in the pockets of music and movie producers. It would shut down the web as it is today.
Money, money, money
How can they get away with it? Put simply: under a misguided conception that more money for the studios means more money for the government and more money for the economy.
That’s true in one sense, but how much money will be lost by forcing smaller companies – around the world – to close their doors for good? It’s a case of the big guy looking down and dumping all over the smaller ones. There’s not a lot – as a startup – that you’d be able to do in response.
The uber-internet companies like Facebook that became as big as they are due to user input would never get off the ground in a post-SOPA world; they’d be sued into oblivion if so much as one of their users posted anything that could be misread by a judge to be IP theft.
Basically, any website that’s ever played to host to anything that could even remotely be misread as copyright infringement – no matter how petty – could be in serious trouble.
Occupy the web
The most worrying thing about all of this from our point of view in the UK, is that the internet is about to be ruined by people in another country. And where the US leads, the Western world is sure to follow. It’s really just a case of waiting to see what them over there actually decide. It’s a scary thing, knowing that the US could be about to decide the fate of the online world, and that you can do sod all about it.
Or can we? There’s now a huge movement online to try and stop this madness from carrying on. Many companies in the US are in favour of SOPA for the sake of their own bank balances, but there are just as many key players against it, or facing boycotts from web users if they’re not. Notable anti-SOPA sites include Reddit, Wikipedia, Yahoo!, Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter and Google.
And so, to January 18th – the day that some of the internet’s biggest hitters have chosen to make try and make the world acutely aware of what’s going on. Reddit, which brings in around 2 billion page views per month, will spend 12 hours on the 18th in darkness, save for a page showing information about how monumentally insane SOPA and PIPA are. Wikipedia is considering doing the same, in an effort to educate the world about what’s about to happen to the virtual land of free, uncensored information.
So now you know the deal, what can you do? If you’re outside the US, very little. But every little helps. Here’s a full list of SOPA supporters. We’re not going to force you to sit on either side of the fence or to do anything in terms of protest, but many people are currently choosing to either boycott these SOPA supporters or bombard them with mail, with table-turning results.
All we know for sure is this: January 18th is the day the internet goes dark, but if SOPA and PIPA pass in the US, it’ll turn darker still, and stay that way forever. Watch the video below for more information: