We’ve blacked out the headlines on our website homepage today as part of a global internet protest against two radical anti-piracy bills pending in Congress — legislation that threatens to usher in a chilling internet censorship regime here in the U.S. comparable in some ways to China’s “Great Firewall.”
SOPA and PIPA, the bills in question, are in tactical retreat as this story goes live, but it is almost certain their backers are already planning the next round, in a process that will continue in one form or another ad infinitum.
Under the current wording of the measures, the Attorney General would have the power to order ISPs to block access to foreign-based sites suspected of trafficking in pirated and counterfeit goods; order search engines to delist the sites from their indexes; ban advertising on suspected sites; and block payment services from processing transactions for accused sites. If the same standards were applied to U.S.-based sites, Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Google and Wired could all find themselves blocked.
Such requests would need to be reviewed and approved by a judge. But accused sites would get little notice of a pending action in U.S. courts against them, and, once blacklisted, have little effective means of appeal.
The threat of such an audacious power grab at the behest of copyright holders has sparked a furious response from technology experts, who see nothing less than a destruction of the internet as we know it. As a result of this outcry, last-minute changes to the House bill have removed some of the most technically ignorant directives. But don’t be fooled: These revisions fall far short of redeeming it.
Proponents of the bills say that enforcement will be responsible and appropriate. History shows again and again that trust in the system is never a substitute for actual legislative safeguards.
Since 1998, online copyright disputes in the U.S. have been resolved under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a measure that is not perfect. But it has helped balance competing interests while also providing important safeguards to prevent abuses, including penalties for spurious infringement claims. SOPA and PIPA would strip away most of these protections, leaving copyright holders free to file claims against foreign websites indiscriminately.
The problem with SOPA and PIPA doesn’t end with false positives. They would create a terrible precedent that other regimes could use to justify their own censorship efforts, potentially fragmenting the internet into so many islands.
There is also a deep question here about the priorities of media executives. SOPA and PIPA represent a legal strategy that focuses the attention of business leaders on stopping losses rather than promoting innovation and building new products. It obfuscates the fact that piracy is, in the long run, an unavoidable cost of doing business, one that should be bearable provided the fundamentals of the business (say, customer satisfaction) are sound.
Beyond damaging free speech and the internet, bills like SOPA and PIPA damage industry by reinforcing an untenable faith in the status quo, and an equally untenable fear of innovation. It reveals a mindset that continues to hold back media companies as they vie to compete on the new platforms that have already transformed their businesses, ready or not.
If that was the only harm in this legislation, we might write it off as another big media business blunder. But this time, it’s more than that. Hollywood’s right to make bad business decisions stops at the point where it threatens our freedom of speech.
To learn more, see Wired.com’s explainer on the SOPA/PIPA bills and protest. To make your voice known on the issue, you can contact your representative and get their phone numbers on this action page.
Photo: David Papazian/Corbis