In protest of the Congressional consideration of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, hundreds of websites (if not more) are "blacking out" today. Some of the biggest websites to go on strike include Google, Wikipedia (English), Reddit, Mozilla/Firefox, and Wordpress. The blackout will last for 24 hours on January 18 for most websites, so I've included screen shots below in case you're reading this after the fact. (See a full list of sites on strike here.)
The protest has already done quite a bit to bring awareness to the danger that is the ideas contained in SOPA. Google's website "End Piracy, Not Liberty" has a great summarization PDF of issues int he debate. In short, the House and Senate are considering legislation that would give the federal government the power to take down any website it wants without notice if it determines that site contains copyrighted material. Among other things it can fine search engines, like Google and Bing, for including links to copyright violating material.
The ideas in the legislation are a significant threat to free speech, would result in substantial censoring of legal material, and would alter the nature of the Internet as we know it. Some have said such overtures are extreme and that SOPA critics are taking the argument too far. While history would suggest that once the federal government gets its claws in something like this the end result is always vindication of the critics, there is a more concrete reason why claims this would alter the nature of the Internet are not overblown.
The foundation of the Internet is the freedom for an individual to seek out and find information/content and also to share information/content. Search engines are tools to do the searching, doors to the Internet. Web domains are the tools to do the sharing. By threatening to fine Google for other people violating copyright, this will necessary force Google to over compensate in restricting its search functions. The necessary result is the capacity for individuals to access content is restricted.
Were this restriction to come from Google just shutting itself down because its staff wanted to all just take their money and become professional surfers, this would be disappointing but not unjust. We have no claim over the staff at Google and, other than contracts they've signed, they don't "owe" "us" the provision of their free services, as much as we've come to depend on them. But that is substantially different than the U.S. government forcibly stepping in and dictating terms to Google for how it can operate and necessitating it restrict access.
Google shutting down would alter the nature of the Internet. Google getting restricted would alter the nature of the Internet. It is as simple as that.
Then there is the due process issue underlying all of this for the sharing aspect of the Internet. The original version of SOPA would allow websites to be taken down on the mere accusation of copyright violation. It would also assume guilt before innocence. So if I have a blog and someone goes into the comments on my blog and writes the words to a popular song they could be in violation of copyright. If I get 1,000 comments a day on my blog (dreaming, yes) it is highly possible I could miss the violation. SOPA would theoretically allow the government to just shut down my blog, take over the domain, and force me into a complicated appeals process to get the site access back. Due process would suggest a notification given and opportunity for the content to be removed. I didn't put it there, I can take it off without shuttering the whole site. Only persistent law breakers who ignore warnings should fear their domain being taken away, and even then the content should be targeted first and foremost.
Amended versions of SOPA promise to only go onto blogs and remove the content, instead of taking down the whole site. But this "fix" would still involve the government intruding into private property without warrant and without notice.
We should not forget that there really is a lot of copyright violation on the Internet. The problem that SOPA is trying to tackle is not fake. So the legislation can not be dismissed out of hand for lack of cause. It is more that SOPA is an unjust solution to the problem. Just as tearing the engine out of a car for speeding would be excessive response, so too is SOPA an excessive response. But the problem of pirated music and video content remains in the wake of SOPA. A possibly more just solution could be the ideas in the OPEN Act, alternative legislation that would still give the government power to restrict websites, but it would move the power to the Federal Trade Commission and remove the power of private copyright holders to demand instant removal of content without investigation.
See below for some video commentary on SOPA, particularly pointing out another metaphor to describe the nature of the problem: The Internet is a road. Google, Bing, etc. are the construction crew. Some people drive safely on the road, others speed. What the road is used for should not be blamed on search engines. You go after the speeders. Even if they are fast and hard to catch, the government can't just get lazy and force the construction crews to make the road more narrow. This makes it a challenge for legal drivers to use the road system just as much as the speeders.
- Peter Suderman on Freedom Watch discussing the terms of SOPA (Jan. 17, 2011)
- Anthony Randazzo on Freedom Watch discussing the nature of SOPA (Jan. 12, 2012)
- Anthony Randazzo on Internet Freedom (Nov. 17, 2011)
Strike Screen Shots