As you perused the web yesterday, you no doubt noticed that a number of sites – Reddit, Wikipedia, WordPress, the Cheezburger Network (of I Can Haz Cheezburger and FailBlog fame) among them, went dark. As you no doubt discovered this was in a collective move to protest something called SOPA/PIPA. Popblerd decided not to go dark for the day. However, we do feel that this is an important issue that has received little media attention until the blackouts. We thus feel that it behooves us to take some time explaining these funny acronyms that are suddenly getting a great deal of attention.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are companion bills currently under consideration in the House and Senate respectively. The aim of both bills is to attack online piracy of media content. With the fall of Napster and similar services in the last decade, many of the major media piracy sites are hosted outside of the US. Beyond targeting those sites for legal action, SOPA includes a contentious provision that also prohibits providing information about circumventing the bill’s censorship mechanisms. This could be software and coding that allows for circumvention, for example. At the more draconian end of things, a blog that merely published a list of IP addresses blocked by SOPA would be in violation of the Act. That would be akin to making someone an accomplice for posting names of convicted felons in their town.

Further, SOPA puts the burden of enforcement on website owners and operators, because they become liable parties in alleged infringements. This is of course a nearly impossible task (consider for example, Facebook’s 800 million users). The costs of these sites policing their users would be untenable, not to mention the willingness of folks to invest in new online startups is also likely to diminish.

SOPA/PIPA also gives US copyright holders the right to serve court orders to cut off foreign websites from receiving advertising dollars from US-based companies – or from accepting funds from US-based credit card companies. By the way, that court order can be granted without contestation – meaning it can be served prior to any sort of judicial hearing wherein the allegedly infringing website can argue their defense.

While SOPA’s DNS (Domain Name System) provision (allowing websites to be blacklisted from the Web’s universal directory service) is off the table (for now), there are related parts of the bill that similarly impede access to online content, the bills do grant the Attorney General authority to remove websites from online search engines. So when your Aunt from Kenosha tries to track down your blog, Google, Yahoo, Bing, et. al. do not lead her there; your blog simply does not appear in the search results.

The fundamental problem with both bills is their vague language. Neither takes the time to define what constitutes an “infringement.” That interpretation is left in the hands of the industry and ultimately, a judge. So let’s say that I post a YouTube clip of the Beatles performing “Revolution” on your Facebook wall. Because the original person that uploaded the clip to YouTube was a fan and not a copyright holder, EMI/Capitol takes action. If this simple act were found to be a “violation,” the following parties are all liable:

  • the YouTube user (for uploading the content)
  • YouTube (for not policing/filtering content uploaded to their site)
  • Me (for sharing a link to the “infringing” content)
  • Facebook (for not policing/filtering content linked to on their site)

To prevent all of this policing and litigation under SOPA/PIPA, the most likely outcome is a chilling effect. Rather than worry about which of their 800 million users might be posting content that might be copyrighted on their website, Facebook is likely to err on the side of safety, banning the posting of video content altogether.

Collectively, these (and other) provisions of the current bills pose real threats to freedoms of speech and expression online, and stand to drastically alter the way that information flows on the Web. It also gives unprecedented power to the corporate media industries who already control so much of what we see, hear and read. In fact, that’s why they so badly want these bills to pass. The open nature of the Internet provides a mainstream, easily accessible medium for exchange that threatens corporate media’s control on information and media content. They don’t want users to have the ability to share content online as we’ve become accustomed, sharing links to media content via blogs and social networking sites. They don’t want savvy fans to make alternate edits of Hollywood films. They don’t want bedroom DJs making entertaining and innovative mashups and remixes of popular music. And they certainly didn’t want you to know about these bills, which is why mainstream media has been mum on the issue. Thanks to three decades of merger mania, the sources that we traditionally rely upon for news and information are also controlled by the producers of media content (i.e. Comcast-Universal having a controlling share of NBC, Disney’s stake in ABC, NewsCorps owning Fox News and the Wall Street Journal Warner Bros. stake in Time and Newsweek, etc.).

Yes, mainstream news media avoided this story since Patrick Leahy introduced PIPA in the Senate last May. But that all changed today. The rash of blackouts across the web mobilized millions of citizens to take action (literally – Google’s petition now has 4.5 million signatures). We’ve reached critical mass.

But the fight is not over. Both bills are still alive and well, with the Senate likely to vote on PIPA this coming Tuesday. If you haven’t taken action, it’s very easy to do so. Contact your Federal Representatives and Senators. The Internet makes this incredibly easy, even if you aren’t sure who your Federal legislators are. You can do this through Wikipedia. Going a step further, Free Press has a similar page, and provides a sample letter (as well as extensive background on the bills).

You may think that your voice doesn’t matter – that politicians don’t listen. Consider that over the course of Wednesday’s blackout, no less than 18 Senators shifted their positions to oppose PIPA. The massive action taken by Internet users today is unprecedented – but we need to keep fighting if we want to protect the Internet.

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