Why the net went black

On January 18, SOPA and PIPA, two bills awaiting legislation, set off a protest unique in the history of humankind. Nearly 10,000 websites observed blackouts and millions joined a signature ca

Published: 02nd February 2012 11:16 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:48 PM   |  A+A-

1-WHY

On January 18, SOPA and PIPA, two bills awaiting legislation, set off a protest unique in the history of humankind. Nearly 10,000 websites observed blackouts and millions joined a signature campaign against the two draft bills aimed at tackling piracy on the web. Fittingly, the protest took place on the Internet, and not in the public square of any city. All the big names — the tech czars — as well free speech advocates, spoke out against the two draft bills.

Wikipedia , the world’s most popular online reference point and source of information, ‘downed shutters’ as it were, and went dark for a full day. An estimated 4.5 million signatures were netted by a Google petition, and the Electronic Frontier Federation (EFF) became the courier for a million more messages, addressed to the United States Congress. With Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo!, Mozilla , EBay, Zinga, Linkedin and AOL expressing solidarity with those opposing the draft bills, and championing the cause of free speech on the web, civilisation’s never-ending quest to balance freedom and accountability turned yet another corner. Nobody seems to be happy with SOPA and PIPA in their current form.

Understanding Sopa and Pipa: The Why

Combating piracy and copyright infringements has been the focus of media companies, television, music and movie industry, besides cosmetic and pharma companies in the US. While they can — and do — work with the US government to take legal action against individuals and domains involved piracy in the US, it is not possible to do so, if the websites are domained abroad. The two draft bills were written with the key aim of acting upon copyright infringement by such websites which are not based in the United States.

SOPA and PIPA

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is before the US House of Representatives and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), before the US Senate. Experts say these are viewed as modified versions of the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA) which failed to take off in the US Senate earlier.

PIPA was introduced on May 12, 2011 and SOPA on October 26, 2011.

The Concerns

Internet censorship exists in a mild form, and removal of content based on orders from local governments is in place in many countries, but the two bills are sweeping in their intent, raising concerns over due process.

Originally, the draft bills envisaged measures that were quickly seen as draconian. One proposal was to allow the US Department of Justice to seek court orders which would require Internet Service Providers to block the domain names seen as infringing upon copyright material. If executed, such domain name blocking would spell the death knell for such websites. After objections were raised by experts, this proposal was dropped from SOPA and PIPA.

The draft bills also proposed that copyright holders could approach a court seeking actions which would effectively choke off the revenue stream, and cut off search links to the website under the scanner. For example, if someone were to post a link to a free file sharing site on your forum, SOPA or PIPA could shut down your website. And the so-called ‘rogue’ website would have just five days to appeal any actions taken against them. Meanwhile, advertisements could be stopped, and revenue flow halted by preventing credit card companies from processing transactions.

Critics of the draft bills point out that in the current form, there is room for abuse and there is really no protection against baseless litigation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been quoted as saying that the bills provide for immunity to payment processors and ad networks which cut off revenue based on reasonable ‘belief’ of infringement. What if the claims of infringement turn out to be false? Well, too bad for the website, the only one to suffer. The high handed SOPA and PIPA propose to not merely remove a ‘page’ or two, but to have the power to erase an entire website.

How does all this affect the ordinary Internet user? Sites hosting user-generated content may be forced to keep a closer eye on individuals. Given that the Internet has forged communities, interlinking them, as evidenced by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, there is a concern that if the two bills are passed, their privacy could be infringed upon. Technology companies, especially those falling within the American legal jurisdiction could be compelled to part with information on individuals simply because they have posted something on a domestic political or economic development.

Individuals, apart, the business community too has cause for concern over the sweeping changes envisaged by the two bills. Studies have shown that growing online traffic fuels economic growth, and the Internet has begun to emerge as a driver for small and medium sized companies , all of which will only grow more in the coming years.

Who is for SOPA and PIPA and  Who is Against Them?

SOPA was authored by Lamar Smith while PIPA was penned by Senator Patrick Leahy. A list of supporters is available, but the White House, gauging the mood on the Internet, said in a statement that it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber-security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

While media houses and cosmetics giants such as Revlon have thrown their weight behind the draft bills, founders of tech biggies such as Craigslist, eBay, Mozilla, Google and Twitter among others have openly come out against the bills. Microsoft said it opposes SOPA ‘as currently drafted.’

Where are SOPA and PIPA now ?

SOPA has been effectively stalled and there are reports that while it is being reworked, Representative Darrel Issa has proposed a much more focused alternative bill.

Voting on PIPA, which was scheduled for January 24, was postponed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid .

But SOPA and PIPA are only stalled, not shelved. While the Americans go back to their drafting boards, the debate over Internet censorship will continue to engage us.

With fewer countries in isolation and less tolerance for totalitarian regimes in the world, the issue of freedom on the web is one that concerns all nations, including India.

In December last year when the Union Minister for Communication and Information Technology Kapil Sibal spoke in favour of screening content on social networking sites such as Facebook there was a huge uproar in the media — and the Internet. But if SOPA and PIPA are passed , it may not be long before other countries such as India follow suit.

However, considering that the origins of SOPA and PIPA lie in online piracy, maybe the focus on channelising revenue streams and coming up with movie software which does not allow for multiple copies may be a better solution. After all, before the advent of the Internet, free sharing still existed.

Your grandfather borrowed a book from a friend, and until he returned it, your grandfather did not have access to the same book. If the movie and music industry need protection — and their concerns over safeguarding their products are genuine — then tamper proof technology might be the answer.

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