SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) & The Internet Blackout

If you are a regular trawler of internet blogs and vlogs then you may have come across the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which is a proposed act by the United States government. It intends to try and restrict online piracy. Fair enough? Well it would seem that a lot of people are up in arms about the proposed law, claiming that it will restrict freedom of speech. Intrigued, I set about looking at the specifics of the act and at current US laws to try and find out what the act itself is saying, rather than a distorted view presented by a number of outraged (and possibly misinformed) bloggers and writers on the internet. One video on You-tube does a fair amount of scare mongering and general talk about what “could” happen before it actually gets into the actual act.

By Piotr VaGla Waglowski, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the actual act; (click here to read it yourself) it would give powers to the Attorney General of America to cease and desist anything which would contain “criminal copyright infringement, unauthorized fixation and trafficking of sound recordings or videos of live musical performances, the recording of exhibited motion pictures, or trafficking in counterfeit labels, goods, or services.” If you are unsure on the legal terms “unauthorized fixation and trafficking” (which I was) they mean recording and selling (or publishing) any recording of a live musical performance you don’t own the rights to for profit; e.g. if you record a clip of Lady Gaga performing and post it somewhere with online adverts.

Now as far as I’m concerned, that sounds pretty fair to me! Companies should have the right to sell what they produce without it being stolen and published for free elsewhere. No matter how common the practice is of watching illegal TV programs, films or downloading illegal music; it is still illegal! Maybe this could finally be the answer to stopping pirating forever (as a cinephile and music lover this is to me a great thing).

But then the second part of the bill arrives, which is the bit that has got many people in a frenzy. This bit says that any website found to be doing these illegal things must “provide a counter notification explaining that it is not dedicated to engaging in specified violations” and if it doesn’t “network providers and Internet advertising services…[should] suspend their services to such an identified site.” It goes on to say search engines, internet advertising providers etc must have “preventative measures including withholding services from an infringing site or preventing users located in the United States from accessing the infringing site.”

This is the bit where suddenly, it goes from being a good piece of legislation, stopping piracy, to something which is directly censoring material on the internet. Now, depending on how cynical you are and how afraid of “Big Brother” you might be, this could be a problem for you. If abused, this could mean the US government could stop anyone, anywhere from looking at content on a website if they can justify that the website is doing any of the above things.  The main problem with this idea – even if it does target content which is actually illegal – is that a whole website (which could contain thousands of articles) could be shut down because of one rogue article.

So that’s the act. You can think what you want about it, but at the moment it is looking less and less likely to go through as I’ve described it above. “The Internet Blackout” intends to change a number of large websites to information about SOPA for one day (January 18th tomorrow) in order to create awareness (and a backlash against the Bill). The blackout appears to be gaining momentum as Wikipedia, Go Daddy, Mozilla, Google and Facebook have pledged various types of support against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The last comment the government made in relation to the act was; “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” said in a joint statement by the intellectual property enforcement coordinator, U.S. chief technology officer and cyber security coordinator for the national security staff. So it would seem they are taking the public response on board (even if in a typically politician like manner).

Although I am an avid supporter of freedom of the press and of speech (being a journalist sort of requires it!) I can’t help but feel that a potentially useful tool against widespread copyright infringement has been cast aside too quickly. Despite that, I think a new approach towards preventing Copyright infringement should be taken. What is the only way to make people watch their TV programs legally rather than seeking them illegally? Obviously it is to provide them legally (and for free) on their own site. We see 4oD and ITV-player doing this regularly these days, (with a bit of advertising maybe) so why would anyone go on an illegal site to watch episodes of, for example, The Inbetweeners? They’re already legally online at no cost.

It seems very unlikely that something so large, expansive and easily changed as the internet can be censored properly; so the big companies have to be smarter about it. You-Tube did it, and though we may grumble about watching five seconds of an advert in front of a clip, we still watch it. I’d be more than happy to do the same for an episode of a TV show or a film, the big production companies need to start understanding this fact, then everyone will get what they want.

The “Internet Blackout” is supposedly happening tomorrow, I wonder what will happen…