Except for fame, what do celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift have in common? Well, alongside with the Sony Corporation, all four have officially been made targets by a hacktivist group, Anonymous, a global and loosely linked network of hackers, for approving of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). However, the hackers linked to Anonymous are far from the only ones opposing these new pieces of legislation which, if enacted, will enable American enforcement agencies to prosecute and shut down so-called rogue web sites, which are sites containing pirated material. Most importantly, and what has caused the strongest reactions, are clauses giving the US government the power to make US internet providers block access to infringing domains. In addition, the government will also be able to sue US-based search engines and directories as well as blogs and forums, forcing them to remove links to such rogue websites. In other words, the sites themselves will be held accountable for what their users upload through the use of their service, creating a delicate situation where censorship might be the only option.
Critics believe that PIPA won’t stop online piracy, but rather introduce a great potential for censorship and abuse of freedom of information, therefore making the web less safe and less secure for individual users. In this context, however, it is necessary to emphasize that many of the opponents of the SOPA and PIPA bills do not favor online piracy or an all-bars-down spreading of copyrighted material. What they are opposed to is the nature of the legislation and the possible ramifications.
The Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA, was brought before the House of Representatives by Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman representing the 21th district of Texas, in late October 2011. The SOPA bill was then followed by a twin sister in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, PIPA – IP stands for intellectual property. Both SOPA and PIPA represent an attempt to counter copyright infringement committed by foreign web sites, and immediately attracted a lot of attention and opposition in the media, both within and outside the US.
One of the most common arguments made in support of the SOPA bill is that it will effectively protect American intellectual property. New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Karen Ranney writes that “We need common sense solutions to protect intellectual property rights, so I – and every other American creator – can continue to make a living, pay the mortgage, and put food on the table”. Ranney expresses deep concern about having stumbled upon a plethora of websites offering up her books for free, and how for the last three years, she’s been watching her royalties drop. Executive vice president of the Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC) at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mark Elliot, whose main job it is to protect American intellectual property writes in reply to an article entitled “Stop the Great Firewall of America”, that the “rogue websites that steal America’s innovative and creative products attract more than 53 billion visits a year and threaten more than 19 million American jobs”.
The main arguments against the SOPA and PIPA bill are clear on the Wikipedia page devoted to it/them: ”SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet”. Just a few days ago, on January 18th, Wikipedia and several other websites, blogs and twitter feeds were made unavailable for users, replaced with black screensavers suggesting that is what the internet will look like if the SOPA bill is ratified. The operation, called SOPA blackout, was supported by many big Internet actors and organizations, as well as by independent bloggers and tweeters. For example, Reddit, a social news site where members get to vote which news goes onto the front page, shut down their website in support of the SOPA blackout. Other examples are Google and Mozilla, both encouraging people visiting their websites to learn more about the issue, with messages like “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!” , “We Believe in an Open Web”, and “We’re dedicated to keeping it free, open and accessible to all”.
The issues of SOPA and PIPA have truly become a battle of the giants, where amongst the supporters are a large number of top politicians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a long list of companies which rely on copyright, or that are dependent on trademarking, such as Nike, L’Oréal, NBC Universal, the Ford Motor Company and the NBA. In the opposite corner, there is the White House, Internet giants such as Google, Yahoo, YouTube and eBay, and human rights organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. Due to the strong financial capacity and political power on both sides of the fence, it is hard to predict an outcome in the matter. However, with around 2.000.000.000 in the world having access to the Internet, many of whom distribute and enjoy copyright material through, for example, web sites like youtube, one cannot but assume the opposition has somewhat of an advantage.