In yet another demonstration of the power of the Internet, mid-January saw a series of co-ordinated protests against proposed US legislation expanding the ability of copyright owners to enforce their rights online.
The controversial legislation is embodied in two bills currently being considered by the US Congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are bipartisan bills currently under consideration in the US House of Representative and Senate respectively, although support for the bills has reduced significantly following the protests.
Protesters took to the streets in several major US cities and numerous web sites displayed their opposition to the bills with varying degrees of voluntary censorship (often accompanied by contact details for members of the US Congress). Amongst online protesters was the ‘not for profit’ Wikimedia Foundation, operator of prominent online encyclopaedia ‘Wikipedia’, which blocked access to its English language content for 24 hours.
The protests appear to have had a significant impact. The Wikimedia Foundation redirected 162 million users to a message opposing the legislation. Of these users, 8 million US-based users took the time to look up contact information for their member of Congress. Google attracted 7 million signatures to its online petition. Staff for Congress members reported exceedingly high call volumes during the protest and several Congress members have subsequently withdrawn their support for the proposed legislation. Even the White House expressed concern about the effect the bills could have on free speech.
Supporters of the proposed legislation assert that new provisions are needed to protect their intellectual property, arguing that current copyright enforcement measures are outdated and ineffective against online piracy. Opponents argue that the proposed legislation is effectively a far-reaching blueprint for running the Internet that enables suppression of free speech and places undue burdens on web sites.
Some of the controversial provisions contained in the bills include:
- enabling the US Attorney General to remove from search results, web sites that violate US copyright laws,
- enabling the US Attorney General and competent copyright holders to block web sites that violate US copyright laws, and
- enabling the US Attorney General and competent copyright holders to prevent US advertisers and payment providers from doing business with web sites that violate US copyright laws.
However, most of the concern about the proposed legislation arises from how infringing activities have been defined in the bills. While previous US anti-piracy bills have concentrated on web sites that are primarily dedicated to copyright infringing activities, SOPA and PIPA do not include this restriction. This is particularly concerning for sites that rely on user-generated content (such as Wikipedia, YouTube and facebook). There is also concern that linking to a web site that violates US copyright laws could attract similar penalties under a ‘facilitating’ provision.
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Summary by: Richard Murphy