SOPA-PIPA: Serving US Corporate Giants

Nadine Wolf wears tape over her mouth as she joins a protest by the technology organization New York Tech Meetup against proposed laws to curb Internet piracy outside the offices of US Democratic Senators from New York Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand 18 January 2012 on Third Avenue in New York. (Photo: AFP - Stan Honda)

By: Jillian C. York

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On January 18, international users of Wikipedia and Reddit may have been surprised to find their favorite sites entirely in the dark. The two sites spent the day “blacked out” in protest of two insidious American “blacklist” bills that would, if made into law, hamper innovation and undermine the principles of free expression upon which the United States was founded. The protest movement pushed the United States House Judiciary Committee Chairman to postpone plans to draft the bills for the time being.

The Stop Online Privacy Act – or “SOPA” – in the US House of Representatives, and the PROTECT-IP (“PIPA”) in the Senate were created to stop piracy and the online trafficking of counterfeit goods, but at what cost? In their original forms, both bills would have allowed for DNS blocking, the same method used by the governments of countries like China and Syria to extensively censor the Internet. Any site that “engages in, enables or facilitates” copyright infringement would be subject to government censorship. Furthermore, a provision in SOPA could ban the use of circumvention tools, the same tools used by citizens in dozens of countries to get around Internet censorship.

The two bills would not only affect American citizens. Website administrators around the world would be at risk of having their sites blocked in the US if they were to post content deemed to violate copyright. The bills would force sites that host user-generated content to pro-actively monitor and censor their users to ensure copyrights aren’t violated, which would have a deleterious effect on social media and other platforms that rely on user content.

Tools that provide circumvention capabilities, such as the Tor Project, are routinely utilized by human rights activists around the world to protect their anonymity and avoid censorship. And yet, corporations concerned about users utilizing such tools to access pirated content could use SOPA to cut off donations to them.

An international fight

The fate of both bills remains uncertain in the face of massive, global protests, but Internet users should remain vigilant. SOPA was recently put on hold indefinitely, with Congressman Darrell Issa stating that “[much] more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal.” In addition, 13 Senators – 11 Republicans and two Democrats – withdrew support following the blackout. PIPA, which is publicly opposed by ninety prominent law professors, underwent significant edits including the removal of DNS blocking provisions and has lost the support of several senators.

Global activism against the bills took various forms, from the ubiquitous “#StopSOPA” hashtag and avatars on Twitter to a petition targeting the US Department of State. Members of the international blogging community – including Lebanese blogger Mireille Raad – took it upon themselves to educate fellow citizens about the effects of the bills.

Who supports SOPA and PIPA?

With many of the Internet’s giants standing in public opposition to the bills, it can be difficult to understand the support for these pieces of legislation in the US Congress. While a number of corporations, including many that routinely suffer from the international trade of counterfeit products, are supporters, the biggest champion of both SOPA and PIPA has been the so-called Hollywood lobby, most notably the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), led by former US senator Chris Dodd.

In the wake of the January 18 protests, the MPAA called the blackouts a “dangerous gimmick,” claiming that sites choosing to participate were turning their users into “corporate pawns,” a rather rich statement from a lobby group that exists to serve Hollywood’s wealthiest corporations.

A chart published by US public interest site ProPublica.org details SOPA’s supporters and opponents in Congress. Tellingly, many of the bill’s proponents, such as co-sponsor Howard Berman – a Democrat from California – have received significant campaign contributions from the entertainment industry.

An uphill battle

Though SOPA and PIPA no longer pose an immediate threat, the long arm of the entertainment industry continues to affect global users of the Internet. Not more than 48 hours after PIPA was shelved news emerged that the U.S. Department of Justice had shut down the popular file-sharing site MegaUpload, seizing the domain name and arresting numerous individuals, some of whom were based in New Zealand. Kim Dotcom, founder of MegaUpload, and three associates were arrested in Auckland “by New Zealand authorities, who executed provisional arrest warrants requested by the United States Department of Justice.”

Though MegaUpload – which profited heavily from the copyright infringement of its users – may not be the best example in the fight against copyright regulations, the response to its shutdown demonstrates the public’s frustration with the United States acting as global police. In the wake of the crackdown on MegaUpload, a group of hackers known as “Anonymous” managed to take down the websites of the Department of Justice, the MPAA and the RIAA, among others. Amidst the furor, six of the ten trending topics on Twitter related to the case, including “#AnonymousFTW” (meaning “Anonymous for the win,” a cheer for the hacktivists’ actions).

In an age when US actors – be they representatives of the Department of Justice pressuring New Zealand police or elected officials pushing for SOPA and PIPA – are intent on acting in the interest of mega-corporations, those who value free culture (or simply see the absurdity in multimillion dollar lawsuits over file sharing) must be creative in coming up with new solutions. The state of the Internet depends on it.

Jillian C. York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writes for, and is on the board of, Global Voices.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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