Knowing that Wikipedia would go dark for 24 hours in protest to SOPA and PIPA, I took the precaution of printing it out last night. Just kidding. Wikipedia is huge. I wanted to say just how big it is, but when I went to Google to look up “size of Wikipedia,” most of the relevant results directed me to articles on Wikipedia which, of course, is dark for the day.
Google didn’t go dark but it did black out its logo and has a link to “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!” with a link to an online petition.
What are SOPA and PIPA and why are people upset?
This is all because of two pieces of legislation: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and its Senate companion bill, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). The purpose of these bills is to make it harder for sites — especially those located outside the United States — to sell or distribute pirated copyrighted material such as movies and music as well as physical goods such as counterfeit purses and watches. Even most of SOPA and PIPA’s strongest opponents applaud the intentions of the legislation while deploring what it might actually accomplish.
Although its sponsors have said that they would amend the bill, as currently written, SOPA would enable the U.S. Attorney General to seek a court order to require “a service provider (to) take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site.” Until this weekend, one of the ways to do that would have been to cut the DNS (domain name server) records that point to the site, but that provision is likely to be removed after the Obama administration weighed in on the issue over the weekend, saying “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.” The administration also echoed concerns raised by a number of security experts, including some anti-malware companies that the bill could disrupt the underlying architecture of the Internet.
The White House statement coincided with sponsors agreeing to remove the DNS blocking provisions. Still, the bill could require search engines like Google to delete any links to the sites.
These are not partisan bills. SOPA and PIPA have proponents and opponents on both sides of the aisle.
The bill would require sites to refrain from linking to any sites “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” It would also prevent companies from placing on the sites and block payment companies like Visa, Mastercard and Paypal from transmitting funds to the site. For more, see this blog post on Reddit.
The problem with this is that the entire site would be affected, not just that portion that is promoting the distribution of illegal material. It would be a bit like requiring the manager of a flea market to shut down the entire market because some of the merchants were selling counterfeit goods.
The bill would also cut off funding by prohibiting payment services from cooperating with infringing sites.
Opponents say it would create an “internet blacklist.”
As CBSNews.com said in its analysis, there are existing laws, including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) that require operators to remove specific infringing content. SOPA and PIPA would go after the entire sites.
Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley
These bills have pitted the entertainment industry against the technology industry. “Hollywood” has a legitimate interest in protecting its intellectual property. Not only are profits at stake but so are jobs. Thousands of Americans make their living by dreaming up content and selling it to the world and piracy does in fact take money out of their pockets. Silicon Valley has invested billions in creating companies that freely distribute information. While Google and every other Silicon Valley company must respect copyrights, they thrive on helping people find what they want. If, suddenly, every web site that had links to other sites had to worry that they could be in violation of the law by linking to a “banned” site, it could put undo pressure on these companies. There is also worry that SOPA and PIPA could be abused and lead to censorship for purposes other than intellectual property protection.
Are the protests having any effect?
Shutting down Wikipedia for a day or blacking out the Google logo won’t stop these bills in their tracks, but they have raised an enormous amount of awareness about the issue. As a result, it is likely that these bills will continue to be amended and, though they may pass in some fashion, they are likely to be quite different than they were when first proposed.