If you happened to be on the Internet on January 18 you no doubt noticed that many of your favorite sites were out of commission. As you’re also probably aware of, this was no mistake. Well-known Internet sites like Wikipedia, Reddit and StumbleUpon were ‘blacked out’ on this day in protest of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
SOPA, which has received the most attention, is a House bill that was proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) on October 26. The bill includes three major tenets: (1) Expanding the authority of law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual material and counterfeit goods, (2) barring advertising networks and payment facilities such as PayPal from doing business with infringing companies as well as prohibiting search engines from linking to those sites and requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to them, and (3) criminalizing unauthorized streaming of copyright material, with a maximum five-year prison sentence for offenders.
On January 18 Google, which had its logo ‘blacked out,’ collected over 7 million signatures against SOPA and PIPA. There were also boycotts of some of the companies who supported the legislation as well as a rally in New York City. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian claimed that combating SOPA and PIPA is “a fight to save democracy.” New York Tech Meet Up Chairman Andrew Rasiej helped coordinate the rally in New York and spoke to the dangers of the two bills.
“What we’re seeing here is a classic example of our 20th century politics clashing with the realities of a 21st century connected humanity and a global economy,” Rasiej said.
Before the blackout, SOPA and PIPA garnered bipartisan support, with Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada being one of the most prominent sponsors. After the massive online backlash to the bills, however, many congressmen and senators dropped their support, leading Rep. Smith to pull SOPA from the House. He did not pull the bill without a strong word of warning for a bill similar to SOPA to be necessary in the future.
“The problem of online piracy is too big to ignore. American intellectual property industries provide 19 million high-paying jobs and account for more than 60 percent of U.S. exports,” Smith said. “The theft of America’s intellectual property costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and results in the loss of thousands of American jobs. Congress cannot stand by and do nothing while American innovators and job creators are under attack.”
Opponents of the bills say that they threaten free speech and innovation by enabling law enforcement to block access to entire domains due to infringing material that is posted on a single blog or webpage. Also of concern is the fact that the bills would bypass “safe harbor” protections from liability presently granted to sites by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Libraries have also voiced concern that they could face prosecution under the bills.
The U.S. government was able to shut down a ‘rogue website’ last week even without the authority of SOPA. The founder of the illegal downloading website Megaupload was indicted along with seven executives in New Zealand. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported that ‘rogue websites’ such as Megaupload get over 53 billion visits per year.