SOPA and PIPA overstepping their intentions and boundaries

February 9, 2012 — by McKenna Galvin and Stanley Yip

On Jan. 18, visitors to Wikipedia were greeted with a black screen saying, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.” A black rectangle censored the Google logo and directed users to sign a petition against Internet censorship. Numerous other websites—Tumblr, Reddit, Craigslist, and more—all engaged in some sort of protest.

On Jan. 18, visitors to Wikipedia were greeted with a black screen saying, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.” A black rectangle censored the Google logo and directed users to sign a petition against Internet censorship. Numerous other websites—Tumblr, Reddit, Craigslist, and more—all engaged in some sort of protest.

These protests were a response to the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bills introduced in the House and the Senate. Both bills claimed to fight Internet piracy, but the vague wording of the bills essentially would have allowed outright censorship of the Internet, prompting the massive protests against the bills. It took only three days after the demonstration for both bills to be tabled indefinitely.

Supporters of SOPA and PIPA, including companies such as Viacom and the Motion Picture Association of America, claim that the bills are necessary to protect the intellectual property market and to stop copyright infringement. Granted, the movie and music industries lose millions of dollars each year to online piracy, yet these proposed remedies to the problem bring more harm than good.

The wording of SOPA and PIPA essentially burdens all websites with full copyright responsibility and allows copyright holders to escape untouched if an accusation of copyright infringement turns out to be false. Any website that “enables or facilitates” copyright infringement would be considered dedicated to the theft of property.

For example, if someone posted a video on YouTube of a copyrighted movie trailer, then the owner of that copyright can seek legal action and have the entire YouTube website shut down. When it turns out that the person was actually given permission to post it, YouTube cannot sue the owner back for the shutdown.

This means that any website with user-generated content runs the risk of being completely shut down when a user posts something with copyrighted material no matter how insignificant the content is.

Furthermore, any website that makes it difficult for law enforcement to tell if it is indeed facilitating copyright infringement would be automatically assumed to be dedicated to the theft of U.S. property, even if it was completely clean.

The Internet community quickly rallied to protest these bills and staged the largest demonstration in history on SOPA Blackout Day, Jan. 18, employing all weapons of the social media.

More than 100,000 websites blacked out logos, whole web pages, or linked to a petition against the bills, including Craigslist, Ebay, Reddit, Vimeo and WordPress. Wikipedia arguably provided the most coverage with its complete blackout of its English site; one hundred and sixty million people visited the site that day.

In just a day after the protests, numerous politicians backed out on their support of the bills, including those who originally sponsored them. In total, 70 members of Congress changed their stance to oppose these bills, enough to table them.

However, none of these bills will have a lasting effect on curbing online piracy. The reality is that no matter how many measures legislatures pass, people will still find ways to escape copyright laws. A better action for companies might be to accept online piracy as a fact rather than to unsuccessfully attempt to suppress it.

Musicians and companies have already begun to do this by providing their content free of charge, with the option to pay to support them, services like Spotify, a social music application, which allows users to listen for free but with commercial interruption.

Though SOPA and PIPA have good intentions, these bills would severely limit online freedom of expression. It is ludicrous to try to stop the inevitable at the cost of Internet freedom. Online piracy must be accepted as a fact and worked with instead of against. Censorship, in general, is not a solution to any situation, nor will it ever be.

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