By Sam Parris -Chief Photographer/Copy Editor
It’s the first week of the semester, you’ve got your textbooks, you’ve been to day one and you’ve just realized you don’t have a clue who this Quantum guy is or why he needs so many mechanics. Your classmates are just as clueless, and if the color of the professor’s beard is anything to go by, he’ll probably only be able to recount an endless tale of what school was like back in the ‘50s. A quick trip to the library and its free Wi-Fi access might be your answer, your salvation, and then—your worse nightmare—Wikipedia has been replaced with a black screen. This nightmare became reality on Wednesday, January 18 as one of the net’s largest sources of quick information joined countless others (even Google) in protest of a pair of bills in the U.S. Congress, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate, and it’s House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
As Facebook walls lit up with blacked out posts, Twitter comments fluttered in on everyone’s smart phones, and disgruntled college students complained while enjoying their Starbucks, more than 70 million Americans were writing, signing and calling to show their disdain for the prospect of their internet being censored. Censorship and free speech infringement aren’t the only issues everyone’s concerned with however. The two bills—SOPA in particular—could spell absolute doom for the Internet, if all the doomsayers are to be believed. The reality, unfortunately, is that these types of claims aren’t too far from the truth.
Let’s start with a bit of background. SOPA and PIPA are Congress’ attempt to usher out a new law to help stop online piracy and illegal downloading. They’re particularly focused on websites hosted oversees, as U.S. law can’t really touch these sites at all. Each day there are millions of songs, movies, TV shows, books, and just about anything else digitized on the Internet that are downloaded illegally from these offshore websites—dubbed “rogue sites.” Each time an album or a pirated blue ray gets downloaded, the company that published it doesn’t get paid—something even opponents of SOPA and PIPA agree isn’t a good thing. What’s the proposed solution? Make it possible for the U.S. Government to create “warrants” for these offshore sites—warrants that will force webhosts and websites in the U.S. to block our access to these sites. The language of SOPA, however, makes it possible to shut down an entire website (such as YouTube for example) if even a single user is found to be in violation of a copyright or piracy law. The burden of actually “blacklisting” these websites falls to the internet providers themselves, something they’re quite upset about.
Now, ignore for a moment all the users out there who are upset about potentially having to do a little extra work for their pirated films and CDs, even strip away the arguments about free speech and we still have a big problem. According to SOPA, if the courts order it, an internet provider will be allowed (and legally obligated) to inspect individual packets of information on their networks—to spy—on exactly what it’s users are viewing on the web, in order to make sure we’re not looking at anything we shouldn’t. A move like that is totally unprecedented, and Internet providers aren’t even ready to do it, even though SOPA would legally obligate them to or else risk shutting down themselves. The way the Internet works currently does not allow for a simple means of blocking websites on a countrywide scale. There is no central computer somewhere that can simply stop all access to a website. Instead, blacklisting a site would require intervention on the part of countless internet service providers and other consumer-run businesses. In China, where Communism is still alive, the government already runs the Internet, so it’s not as challenging to build a national firewall. The U.S. networks, however, are much more privatized. Entirely new systems would have to be developed to blacklist sites, something which opponents of the bills argue is simply not possible.
Then there’s Wikipedia…also Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla (think Firefox), eBay, AOL, Yahoo, and countless others—the leaders in the movement against SOPA. The arguments are centered not only on the technical issues but also the idea that the bills could be used to censor the web. Aside from the all-day blackouts on Wednesday, there’ve been letters, phone calls, petitions and other protests directed at Congress. Even the European Parliament expressed their opposition. In most of the oppositions’ opinion, the only way to solve the problem is to “kill” the bills altogether.
Fighting in favor are the bills’ main supporters, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who argue that online piracy severely hurts the economy of the country. Many of the congressman supporting the bills (including their creators) have received large donations to their campaigns from these groups—another reason for the public backlash.
The question remains, would SOPA really have that much of an effect on free speech? Would it ruin the Internet? Would it be the end of YouTube and Wikipedia? The only simple answer is: maybe. The wording of the bills allows for unprecedented government control over the Internet. If passed, they’d allow groups like the MPAA or the RIAA to file copyright claims against websites with the Attorney General’s office, who’d then be able to order that service providers block all access to whatever site might be hosting the copyrighted content—whether hosted home or abroad. It doesn’t mean our Facebook and Twitter posts will be replaced with black boxes, but it could mean a website we’ve all come to rely on could simply disappear overnight. That simple fact, the idea that our Internet will no longer be free and unrestrained is the real worry.
Whether it is the fear of losing our online liberty or LOLCats, SOPA and PIPA are perhaps the most widely opposed bills by the public that we’ve seen in several years, and, unfortunately they currently have the support of both political parties. In recent days though, since the protests last Wednesday, the bills are starting to show signs of a stall. More and more congressmen are changing their minds about the bill and still more remain undecided. The fate of our Internet is by no means set in stone, but the road ahead is starting to look a little rocky.
Anyone wishing to show support against SOPA/PIPA are encouraged to visit www.savetheinternet.com