The Internet and SOPA – was it ever going to work?

by Méabh McDonnell

Those of you who haven’t been living under a wifi-deprived rock will have had some experience with the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy) bill. Between the Wikipedia blackout, the activity of online organisation, Anonymous, and countless online protestors, the anti-piracy bill has spread around all four corners of the world wide web.

Despite the fact that almost everyone who procrastinates knows of the SOPA and PIPA (Protect your IP Address) bills, not many people know what the bills actually entail. The message being put about the internet is that SOPA will censor the web beyond recognition, destroying free content and the integrity of websites such as Wikipedia, Twitter and YouTube. If we were to believe some of the articles floating around online, then SOPA is heralding the ‘Would you steal a car?’ ads making good on their promises.

The reality is more complex. SOPA has had a rocky introduction to the world, but the legislation was in fact designed to protect intellectual property. The internet, as we all know, has a nasty habit of making copyrighted material available without the user having to part with any of their hard earned cash.

Unfortunately, people aren’t so fond of their content being released for free. Unless you became a hermit and never let anyone see your material, everything is up for grabs. SOPA’s aim was to remedy this.

The SOPA bill was introduced in the US congress along with a companion bill, PIPA. Both bills aim to control the distribution of free online content by removing access to websites which distribute copyrighted material illegally. The legislation has been championed by members of the entertainment industry, being seen as a method of protection for their intellectual property.

Despite all of the activity about the bills online, neither one has been introduced. In fact, they are closer to being defeated. The US House of Representatives has heard objections to the SOPA bill in particular, and has been forced to withdraw the legislation for now. But it is not dead yet. US senators have revised the bill in accordance with recommendations from the Obama administration. The legislation is to be amended so that it doesn’t impede upon small businesses or new innovations in internet technology.

The SOPA legislation defines itself as: “A bill to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” According to the bill, access would be removed to sites which display copyrighted material, both from the US and abroad to US viewers. The aim is stated over and over again: to protect the intellectual property of US citizens. However, the bill puts up the proviso that if the illegal content has already been removed, then the site would not be in violation of the law.

There has been a well publicised backlash from internet sites all over the world. Wikipedia’s blackout on January 18th received international coverage and crippled those who regularly use the site as a research tool. Google went black in solidarity and online group Anonymous decided to shut down the website of the US Department of Justice. Arguably, Anonymous have taken their protesting to a new, illegal level. Anonymous are protesting more than just the SOPA and PIPA bills. They are also protesting against the FBI injunction which shut down popular uploading site Megaupload.com.

A common misconception seems to have developed online – namely that SOPA is the cause of Megaupload’s destruction. In fact, the injunction that shut down the site had been the result of a two-year investigation by the FBI. Anonymous’ protests have blurred the lines between the demise of Megavideo and the potential introduction of SOPA in reader’s minds. The international investigation foreshadowing what may occur under the introduction of SOPA and PIPA. According to The Wall Street Journal, the site had cost copyright holders over $500 million dollars.

SOPA isn’t the first piece of online monitoring legislation. In 2010 the US signed the ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) – a treaty made across six countries to, once again, protect against online piracy. ACTA has been in the news recently because the EU has signed up to the legislation. The European Commission website maintains that ACTA will not affect any existing laws, but will protect users against online piracy and intellectual theft. The website says that ACTA is not a replacement for SOPA. The internet community seems unconvinced, drawing many similarities between the two pieces of legislation and calling ACTA ‘SOPA by any other name’ and ‘SOPA through the backdoor’. According to the European Commission: “ACTA ensures people everywhere can continue to share non-pirated material and information on the web.”

According to the site: “ACTA does not restrict freedom of the internet. ACTA will not censor or shut down websites.” While not a definite replacement of SOPA, this trade agreement has been signed by the EU at a time when a number of other governments are opposing piracy too. Because, not unlike the many online fads that sweep the online universe, the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA legislation are the buzz words on every government’s lips. On the days the fiscal crisis gets boring, governments across the world have been sitting down trying to discover how to deal with online piracy. Since the ‘thank you’ message at the beginning of DVDs never worked, it was time for another attempt: online legislation.

SOPA has sparked the change. Governments have finally given in to the entertainment industry’s pleas to rescue it. It is a day that all internet users knew would eventually come; the day where every entertaining aspect of online activity was not available at the push of a button. SOPA may not have been enacted, but it has scared enough internet sites underground.

Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been granted immunity by ACTA, but anyone that shares fully copyrighted television shows and movies has been told to run and hide. We could be witnessing the future. International governments may not be winning the war against online piracy, but at least they now have a fighter against it.

 

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