It looks like the hashtags are paying off.
As the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in December, the powers of the internet—the web companies who innovate, the users who populate it—joined together to defend the idea of a free and open 'net. Now, because of the controversy and noise (more than 700,000 tweets and a million emails), there may no longer be the legislative will in the House to pass it, according to Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the bill's most vocal opponents.
But bills often come in pairs, and SOPA's twin in the U.S. Senate is the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. Both bills threaten to rip apart the fabric of the internet, compromise the planet's digital security and open the doors for China-class censorship. While the SOPA brand is damaged, PIPA has yet to attract similar levels of negative attention. It's scheduled for a Senate floor vote on Jan. 24 and could easily sneak through under the radar. The most important thing for internet activists to do, right now, is spread the word that PIPA is the new target.
Understandably, the entertainment industry is sick of watching its films, records and software stolen by large-scale online file-sharing operations based overseas, also known as “rogue sites.” However, in the name of intellectual-property rights, media companies have enlisted a bipartisan chunk of Congress to pass anti-piracy legislation weighted irrationally in their favor. Copyright holders want to give themselves and the U.S. Department of Justice the power to block websites accused of infringement. They want to force internet service providers to create a wall between their customers and these websites. They want to force banks and payment services like PayPal to cut off these websites' money. They want the websites removed from search results and to ban people from linking to them. And all of that, without any kind of formal hearing.
The measures won't stop copyright infringement. The internet, and the flow of information, will find a way around any dam the entertainment industry tries to put up. But as ineffective as the measure may be, to continue with the metaphor, the dams themselves will do serious damage to the ecology of the web.
Experts and Internet engineers, who were conspicuously not invited to testify before the House committee, have issued warnings that SOPA could undermine the global domain system and create gaping network-security holes. The world's major internet innovators—Google, Twitter, Facebook, Mozilla—contend that the legislation eliminates the safe harbors of previous laws that allowed them to experiment in good faith and would create onerous liabilities that would stifle new platforms. Civil-liberties organizations point to the First Amendment implications, arguing that the U.S. would be setting a global model for mass internet censorship.
Even Marc Randazza, an attorney featured in our Watch List who makes a living suing gay-popirates, says the legislation goes too far. Media companies will “definitely” abuse it, he says, noting there are no penalties for frivolous accusations. While he agrees that rogue sites need to be fought, Randazza says that any law this strict should also have strong fair-use and safe-harbor exceptions. SOPA and PIPA do not.
Besides, anyone who understands the evolution of the internet knows that copyright infringement has been fundamental to its development and that media companies can only blame themselves for being slow to adapt to new technologies.
“It took piracy to force the iTunes model to exist,” Randazza says. “There needs to be a little room at the margins, even if it means the people get shut down eventually. We don't want to stifle innovation.”
Issa has an alternative bill he'd like considered: The Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, or OPEN, which also has a twin in the Senate, introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, Jerry Moran and Maria Cantwell. OPEN puts rogue sites under the purview of the international Trade Commission, which already oversees patent infringement. The ITC would have the authority to block the flow of money and advertising to these sites, but that's all.
We think the bill should get a fair hearing, with all parties at the table. We'd also like to see media companies abandon their power grab, embrace the concept of open content, explore new revenue models (front-loaded funding, like Kickstarter, is not just a fad) and take advantage of the hunger for information that is so apparent in the popularity of these rogue sites.
For users, the task at hand is simple: PIPA is the new SOPA, so change your hashtags, keep hounding your senators (americancensorship.org makes it easy) and give this editorial a Like.
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