File-sharing site Megaupload.com’s recent shutdown merely underscores the escalating firestorm over international copyright laws, one revitalized by the House of Representatives’ controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Despite SOPA’s recent shelving and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to temporarily delay the PIPA vote, the offensive makes it clear that the war for technology users’ hearts and minds still rages on. For both opponents of online piracy and advocates of information sharing, it’s obvious that a long, painful and drawn-out conflict lies ahead as lawmakers and leading corporations battle for control of the Internet.
Though temporary derailed, SOPA and PIPA – contentious bills aimed at curbing illegal music, movie and software sharing (including offenses by overseas websites) – continue to be blasted by critics despite support from the film and record industries. Claiming that the bills violate free speech laws and place undue burden on innocently linking websites, experts are fretting over the impracticality of enforcement and precedents it may set for widespread government censorship. While detractors applaud their ultimate goal, prevailing consensus seems that the execution is deeply flawed, including provisions that would give the Justice Department wherewithal to demand that search engines remove links to allegedly offending websites. Further issues raising red flags extend to overly-broad definitions of “foreign” vs. “domestic” sites, plus provisos barring payment processors such as Visa or PayPal from doing business with alleged offenders or forcing Internet providers to block users’ access to identified targets.
These clauses would potentially give the U.S. Attorney General unprecedented powers of censorship and, by proxy, unwarranted leverage over innocent, privately operated companies. Targets of anti-piracy efforts may also be subject to the blacklisting of entire domains – not just individual website pages. Alone, the burden of policing and scrubbing a single site of offenses, e.g. popular online exchanges such as eBay or Craigslist, could potentially hobble entire services and huge tracts of online real estate. Disturbed by the issues these pieces of legislation raise, Internet leaders such as Yahoo, Twitter, America Online and Zynga have quickly banded together in vocal opposition.
The growing backlash has culminated in widespread protests by top tech firms, including this week’s voluntary shutdown of popular online services, including WordPress and Wikipedia. Even celebrities such as The Daily Show‘s John Stewart have felt compelled to weigh in, stating that SOPA will “break the Internet,” while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took aim at the act in a rare tweet. “Tell your congressmen you want them to be pro-Internet,” he posted, accompanying the sentiment with a larger Facebook post. As these outbursts illustrate, despite the bills’ stated intention to make it harder for sites located outside the U.S. to steal digital media or sell counterfeit goods, mainstream support appears to be rapidly deteriorating.
Good intentions aside, political support for both measures has dwindled in recent weeks, culminating in indefinite delays for both bills. Onetime advocates on Capitol Hill have increasingly pulled prior endorsements, too, citing concerns with both pieces of legislations’ current form and potential infringements on personal rights and due process. But even in the face of apparent victory, fears continue to mount among the general public regarding provisions that would give lawmakers freewheeling powers to pursue and punish copyright infringers. Major Internet firms have remained ardent in their opposition, including Google, which two days ago placed a black bar over its logo in protest and has collected over 7 million signatures for a petition calling for Congress to halt web censorship. Claiming that the bills limit creativity, innovation and expression, these ongoing debates prompted over 2.4 million heated tweets on Wednesday alone, buoyed by mounting public outcry against ratification.
As Hollywood studios and record industry titans grapple with top technology startups, both sides agree that more must be done to prohibit the flow of online piracy and counterfeit wares. But whereas entertainment giants favor tighter restrictions and more draconian enforcement measures, Silicon Valley startups favor a more laissez-faire approach. In the latter case, unrest has materialized around concerns that if left unchecked, the bills could lead to site blacklisting, organized control of information and unwarranted site shutdowns.
Potentially giving the government or content creators undue leverage to influence the Web’s leading lights, protestors like Wikipedia and Reddit have fired back, causing temporary site blackouts that have inconvenienced millions. A taste of what may come if these or similar bills were ever to pass, besides continuing to plague users of popular online services, the currently raging debate promises to leave behind at least one lasting impact. Pointing towards the growingly contentious future of the Internet, as envisioned by multimedia makers vs. information distributors, both SOPA and PIPA herald an online era destined to be defined by well-publicized site takedowns and high-profile legal battles. Already, fallout has extended to the music industry, as the controversy surrounding Megaupload.com has captured hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz in its web.
Backroom arm-twisting and fear-mongering headlines aside, an increasingly frustrated public, annoyed by consistently flawed attempts to stem the rising tide of Internet theft, may nonetheless be able to find some consolation in the mounting conflict. For the foreseeable future, any actions aimed at restricting online sharing – SOPA, PIPA or otherwise – will likely emerge so mangled from impending clashes that they’ll have scant impact on one’s ability, legal or otherwise, to download favorite songs and albums.