Surfing the internet was all but impossible on January 18 without being bombarded with messages about SOPA — the Stop Online Privacy Act that the US Congress wants to pass. Wikipedia shuttered its site for the day while companies like Google and Amazon posted messages urging people to campaign against the bill. Critics argue that the bill is unduly draconian since, in a quest to stem the tide of intellectual copyright theft, it hands private companies the right to censor the internet. Their fears are justified. So sweeping is the language of SOPA that it grants the holders of intellectual copyrights the ability to shutter down non-American websites that they claim are pirating their material. No court would be required to adjudicate the matter; the companies’ word would be enough. The bill also gives payment processors like PayPal and content providers like YouTube the power to shut off services to any site they consider to be engaged in piracy. So long as they do this in “good faith” they cannot be held liable for their actions. The bill is even more odious considering the fact that these actions can only be taken against foreign websites and not those operating out of the US. Right now, the internet is controlled by the US-based Internet Corporations for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and regulatory oversight is provided by the US government. The system has worked well because ICANN is generally considered to be apolitical and fair to other countries. If SOPA passes, however, it will show how precarious an arrangement this is as the US will effectively be able to shut down websites of other countries without proving just cause.
Piracy is a real problem that badly hurts the US economy but SOPA is not the answer. So vast is the internet and so difficult to monitor, that innovate solutions are needed to counter piracy. When Napster threatened to bring the music industry to its knees, Apple stepped in with its pay-per-song model that revived the fortunes of record companies. Similar solutions, not totalitarian legislation, are needed to tackle piracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2012.