Geek Guide: The battle over information

SOPA caused an uproar in the tech community, but will such a bill ever turn into legislation in the future?

Noman Ansari January 31, 2012

Unless your computer has been in sleep mode since several weeks, you surely did not miss out on the widespread internet protests on January 18.  Over 115,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Craigslist, Mozilla, Reddit, Destructoid, and even the popular blog site Wordpress ‘blacked out’ during that day. While fans of Mozilla’s popular web browser Firefox saw an altered logo simply stating the phrase, “Stop Censorship”, users of Wikipedia, encountered a page, illustrated in black and shades of grey — foreboding a world “without free knowledge”.

Even those websites which did not participate in these protests were quick to show support for them. Google, for example, modified their logo for their US users that day, shelling it in an interactive black rectangular ribbon, which when clicked, took users to a webpage giving details of the current scenario.

What instigated this uproar, you ask? None other than the Stop Online Piracy Act, (SOPA) — a pair of anti-piracy bills recently proposed in the US Congress.  Both bills were officially postponed on January 20 because lawmakers who introduced the bill reversed their stance after taking notice of the massive protests.

These protest weren’t only limited to the titans of the internet. Large numbers of tech fans in major US cities — Washington DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York — showed up to organised rallies on January 18. On this date, US senators in NY, found throngs of protestors outside their offices, organised by New York Tech Meetup — a local tech community group. After the protests, Nate Westheimer, executive director of the organisation stated, “We’ve made our point. The next move is on them and if they don’t respond, then we will keep at them.”

But what exactly made the SOPA bill controversial? Ironically, both protestors and supporters of the bill agreed that the aim of SOPA — to shield copyrighted content from piracy — was noble. However, opponents from Silicon Valley felt that that SOPA was written in a manner that could unintentionally provide the internet police with too much power, leading to censorship, and adversely affecting ‘freedom of speech’ — a cornerstone of the internet.

The SOPA bill was born to aid US companies in their fight against illegal downloading websites based overseas, such as The Pirate Bay, which allow users to pirate American content. These international websites are virtually untouchable because they are not restricted by American law. The SOPA bill essentially sought to strangle the visibility of these pirate websites by forcing US-based search engines, e-commerce websites and internet marketing companies, to black them out, using court orders. In short, SOPA’s goal was to make it as difficult as possible for American internet users to gain access to such websites, thus affecting their popularity.

While the earlier such bill, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), had gone virtually unnoticed, SOPA did raise a storm with giant tech companies in Silicon Valley, who felt the vague language of the bill could allow potential blacklisting of a favourite website based on some flimsy infringement claim. This could prove, as popular tech website said, “a kind of an Internet death penalty”. But, tech experts felt the implications of SOPA could actually go even further, and the penalties introduced in such bills would make it difficult for many major startup websites to find growth. For instance, under such a bill, whistle blowing website Wikileaks, would have found it impossible not to have been blacklisted.

And while SOPA has been stopped in its tracks for now, many feel that this is not the end, including popular American blogger and humourist Maddox who writes, “There have been many bills attempted (and some passed) like SOPA before it. There’s the DMCA act of 1998, PRO-IP Act of 2008, the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and now the PROTECT IP Act of 2012. Think this victory means anything? A new bill gets introduced every year or two like clockwork. Check back in a few years, and there’ll be another SOPA or Protect IP Act being squeezed down the lower intestinal tracts of Congress.”

In the end, if there is one thing certain, it is that when the next SOPA bill gathers momentum, the tech community will voice its sentiments again.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2012.

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