SOPA: Protection or Suppression?

Starting at midnight on January 18, 2012, English Wikipedia intentionally blacked out its website for 24 hours for the first time ever. Instead of reaching English Wikipedia, internet users instead reached messages such as the following:

Imagine a World
Without Free Knowledge

For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.[1]

Over 8,000 websites, including Craigslist, Reddit, and other popular websites were similarly blacked out, Google’s home page reflected a black strip covering the ubiquitous Google logo, while blacked out its headlines, all in protest against the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (“SOPA”) and the “Protect Intellectual Property Act” (“PIPA”). SOPA and PIPA are bills pending in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, respectively, which are intended to give copyright owners greater protection and remedies against infringement on foreign websites.

SOPA would allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek injunctive relief against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. The relief could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites.

Opposition to the legislation stems in part from the concern that it would place a burden on websites to police the material posted by users for infringing content. As Wikipedia explained:

SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won’t show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

SOPA and PIPA are a threat to Wikipedia in many ways. For example, in its current form, SOPA would require Wikipedia to actively monitor every site we link to, to ensure it doesn’t host infringing content. Any link to an infringing site could put us in jeopardy of being forced offline.

Other popular and influential websites, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, and even numerous creative industries, such as the video game industry, have voiced strong opposition to the legislation, on grounds that it impinges on fundamental First Amendment rights. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that SOPA’s passage “would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.”[2]

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg posted the following sentiment about the legislation on his Facebook page:

The internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the internet’s development. Facebook opposes SOPA and PIPA, and we will continue to oppose any laws that will hurt the internet.[3]

Even a group of filmmakers, musicians, authors, and other artists and creators, including rock luminary Trent Reznor, sent an open letter to Washington on January 17, expressing their opposition to the legislation and stating that:

We, along with the rest of society, have benefited immensely from a free and open Internet. It allows us to connect with our fans and reach new audiences. Using social media services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we can communicate directly with millions of fans and interact with them in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

We fear that the broad new enforcement powers provided under SOPA and PIPA could be easily abused against legitimate services like those upon which we depend. These bills would allow entire websites to be blocked without due process, causing collateral damage to the legitimate users of the same services – artists and creators like us who would be censored as a result.[4]

Live protests against SOPA and PIPA were also held on January 18, 2012, including a protest in the streets outside the New York City offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Despite the mounting controversy over the legislation, both television networks and Republican presidential candidates – other than Ron Paul, who joined Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in a letter to the House expressing concern about the legislation in November 2011 — were notably silent on the issue until only days before the widespread protests began to reach a boiling point, when on January 14, 2012, MSNBC became the first TV network other than Comedy Central and Current TV to broadcast a substantive discussion of the debate.[5]

Although the anti-piracy legislation has been backed strongly by the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as other traditionally heavy-hitters in the entertainment, publishing, and pharmaceutical industries, it appears that this time their support is insufficient to overcome the tremendous grass-roots Internet opposition.

On January 14, 2012, a White House blog stated that the Obama administration acknowledged the threat that foreign websites pose but it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”[6] Instead, the Obama administration has agreed to work with lawmakers on a narrower, more targeted approach to online piracy to ensure that legitimate businesses – including start-up firms – would not be harmed.[7]

On January 17, 2012, a legislative sea change began to appear as U.S. lawmakers began withdrawing their support for the legislation, including Representative Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.), followed on January 18 by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of PIPA, and Senators Jon Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Roy Blunt (R-Miss.).[8] Representative Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) announced on January 17 that markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act would not resume until February.[9]

Given the rapid dissipation of popular and governmental support for SOPA and PIPA, any anti-piracy legislation that may ultimately be enacted will likely look very different from the current drafts of these bills.

The Huffington Post suggests the following ways to voice your opinion on SOPA or PIPA: blackout your website, blackout your Twitter image, blackout your Facebook profile picture, blackout your page on Pinterest, call or write to your Senator or House Representative, join over 3 million Americans in signing petitions on Craigslist, Reddit, or numerous other websites.[10]