You may have been surprised today when visiting one of your favorite websites to find it inaccessible or to find yourself redirected to a special page or to find a new design with a grim theme – all of this for the purpose of making you aware of the threat to your internet liberty posed by legislation currently pending in Congress. Participating sites include Google, Tumblr and most dramatically Wikipedia. You may also find many of your Facebook friends sporting alarming profile pictures for the same reasons.
This is part of an effort by some internet content providers to strike back against a coalition of movie and recording industry giants who have spent a lot of money on advertising and lobbying to push forward the Protect IP Act (S.968) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R.3261) in the House at the start of next week’s legislative session. Harry Reid is expected to put PIPA up for a floor vote on Tuesday.
These bills are aimed at internet piracy, but in such a broad and unbalanced way that they threaten everyone’s liberty on the internet. They are intended to expand the ability of US law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods, allowing the Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement.
While some concern over online piracy is justified, SOPA and PIPA do not really target the major offshore data havens which are the real source of the problem and they give unaccountable enforcement power to government agencies which can be used to intimidate content providers, shut down entire networks based on nothing more than an accusation, and even blacklist businesses and remove them from the internet entirely. This will have the sort of chilling effect we have already seen from the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, discouraging development in this increasingly important sector of the economy. It could also lead to wholesale violations of the privacy rights of individuals and businesses.
SOPA and PIPA could put Internet Service Providers in a position where they would have to block public access to websites on their networks or hurt network efficiency with complex monitoring schemes or face penalties directed at them for the actions of their customers. Threats of shutdowns based on nothing but an unsubstantiated accusation of facilitating copyright infringement could lead to preemptive action against accused sites. Web-based businesses and private sites would be treated as guilty until they could prove their innocence, a complete reversal of American legal tradition. This could be devastating to small businesses which cannot afford the legal costs of a fight to defend their rights. There is huge potential for lawsuit abuse and intimidation from media giants with deep pockets and their own legal teams.
Opponents have compared this legislation to the kind of censorship practiced in China. Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation described SOPA as “the worst piece of intellectual property legislation we’ve seen in the last decade.” Protests from consumer groups, civil liberties advocates and online businesses are widespread, culminating in today’s symbolic protests on many popular sites.
The author of SOPA in the House and one of the leading forces behind the legislation is Lamar Smith (R-TX) who has been responsible for much of the worst legislation of the past decade, including the PATRIOT Act, REAL ID and many of the laws which have facilitated the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Now he wants to make war on the internet. He is supported by other big government Republicans like Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), who is a virtual hireling of the Disney Corporation. There is also bi-partisan opposition led by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) in the Senate and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House. The President has also expressed concern over the content of the acts.
Supporters claim that PIPA and SOPA have been “improved” and want to push them through as quickly as possible, but analysis of the bills from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union still find major flaws in the legislation. Concerned groups are organizing call-in and email efforts to influence Congress before next week.
If you are concerned about keeping the internet free and would like them to go back to work and find ways to fight piracy without hurting private citizens and small businesses which drive one of the most dynamic segments of our economy, use the form provided by the Republican Liberty Caucus to write your Senators and speak up against PIPA while you still can.