You’d have to have been hidden under a rock to not have heard (or seen) that Wikipedia closed its doors last week due to policy that could well be implemented by the bureaucrats in Washington. Also joining Wikipedia were NaturalNews, Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress and BoingBoing. All websites, with support from their audiences, made the decision to close due to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills due before congress last week.
So, one might wonder why websites are protesting a bill that on the surface has good and legitimate intentions. After all, our business here is creating intellectual property and we have never taken kindly to people using our work without stumping up the cash. Film, music, game and software industries are all falling victim to the increasing propensity to just download the content rather than pay for it, which has caused problems reinvesting in new productions. Now you may have more sympathy for some of those industries (or even more singularly, some products) over others! But the fact is that if 40% of people who walking into Next walked out with goods without paying, their business wouldn’t be looking very healthy in no time at all.
Although on the surface these bills look like they will help intellectual property owners, they could potentially harm everybody else as a direct consequence. The main issue raised is that the legislation is so vague and open to interpretation that it leaves too much room for abuse of power, and there is no oversight necessary when somebody decides that a website should be closed. There was potential for huge collateral damage in the name of fighting piracy. For example, social bookmarking websites could be accused of contravening the act, as even linking to copyrighted materials could potentially be grounds for website closure. When you consider how Google’s algorithms work, it would be very hard for the website to not contravene the law on an almost daily basis.
And that’s one of the points. Governments would have no intention of closing behemoths such as Google, Twitter or Facebook and therefore favouritism and corporatism would be the new rule online, which would be catastrophic for net neutrality and online freedom of expression.
The sweeping powers included in the act weren’t even necessary. How can I say that? Well in the same week that both pieces of legislation were squashed, and bill co-signers were backing off at pace, the feds closed down megauploads.com with impunity.
The law already gives enough powers to tackle violators of copyright law, without far reaching new legislation being implemented. While the fight, for now, seems to have hit a stalemate, that doesn’t mean that this is the last we’ve seen of SOPA and PIPA. The internet as we know it will change dramatically over the coming years – that much is now a certainty.