Update, Jan. 19: Following the blackout protests, 18 Senators—including 7 former sponsors of the bill—withdrew their support for the Protect IP Act, leaving it without enough votes.
Today, if you tried to find an apartment on Craigslist, Google photos of cute cats, or look up the 14th president on Wikipedia, you surely noticed something strange. These sites, cornerstones of our Internet lives, are blacked out today—and they’re not alone. A massive digital strike is underway, all in protest of what sounds like friendly legislation: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and its peer, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
So why is the Internet on strike? Because what’s at stake in the bills, opponents say, is a lot bigger than LOLCats. According to the ACLU, the legislation “would not only impact unlawful infringing content, but also a wealth of completely legal content that has nothing to do with online piracy.”
SOPA would allow owners of intellectual property to cripple foreign sites that are using their copyrighted material illegally (for example, by demanding that search engines not index them, or that ad agencies not contract with them). But since this process would be governed by the “good faith belief” that sites are infringing, rather than judicial review, there’s a lot of worry that it would be misused.
Potential for abuse is rampant. As Public Knowledge points out, Google could easily take it upon itself to delist every viral video site on the internet with a "good faith belief" that they're hosting copyrighted material. Leaving YouTube as the only major video portal. Comcast (an ISP) owns NBC (a content provider). Think they might have an interest in shuttering some rival domains? Under SOPA, they can do it without even asking for permission. […]
SOPA also includes an "anti-circumvention" clause, which holds that telling people how to work around SOPA is nearly as bad as violating its main provisions. In other words: if your status update links to The Pirate Bay, Facebook would be legally obligated to remove it. Ditto tweets, YouTube videos, Tumblr or WordPress posts, or sites indexed by Google. And if Google, Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook, etc. let it stand? They face a government "enjoinment." They could and would be shut down.
The resources it would take to self-police are monumental for established companies, and unattainable for start-ups. SOPA would censor every online social outlet you have, and prevent new ones from emerging.
In fact, SOPA has been having a rough road of late: the Obama administration came out against it, knocking it off course for the time being, and three co-sponsors of the bills withdrew their support as the Internet blackout (which the L.A. Times estimates to include some 10,000 websites) began. But PIPA is still set for mark-up next week.
And so the protest continues. Google, in a petition it’s circulating, states, “There’s no need to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions of U.S. jobs.” A group of artists sent an open letter to Congress, explaining that “copyright law exists to promote the arts, but the new penalties in PIPA could be used against the new social media channels we depend on to make a living, and endanger freedom of expression.”
Jim Gilliam: Why the Internet is my religion.
Jonathan Zittrain gives reason to hope for the future of the Internet.
How online activism can help us understand how real change is made.