Wikipedia and other websites shut down to protest online piracy bill
Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Jan. 17, 2011.
By Patrick May
As Wikipedia and other websites go dark Wednesday in what backers are calling the largest Internet protest ever, the epic battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood over online anti-piracy legislation continues to heat up, even as many Web surfers scratch their heads over what it all means.
The fight is over the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill now stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives that’s aimed at stopping the spread of pirated copies of movies and other content by “rogue” websites overseas. Heavyweight supporters of SOPA such as Time Warner and the Motion Picture Association of America are butting up against tech titans such as Wikipedia, Google (GOOG) and Facebook, which argue that the legislation could lead to widespread censorship.
Here is a guide to help understand SOPA and a parallel bill in the Senate called the Protect IP Act:
Q What is SOPA?
A Backers say the bill is necessary to rein in copyright infringement, specifically from pirate sites outside the United States, by essentially cutting off their oxygen supply, says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University and a neutral observer in the debate.
“We can’t send in the feds to bust them,” he said, “and the intellectual property, or IP, owners can’t go after them in U.S. court. So these bills create ways to marginalize websites by cutting off their domain name or their money supply, doing things like requiring credit-card companies to stop making payments to the sites and require ad networks to drop them as customers.”
Q Aren’t there already laws that punish online pirates?
A The 1998
Digital Millennium Copyright Act does provide enforcement measures. For example, if someone uploads a copyrighted song to YouTube, the act gives the song’s rights holder the ability to send a notice demanding the site remove it. In this case, YouTube must let the offending uploader know the song has been flagged, and that person in turn could object and even appeal the matter in court.
But SOPA proponents say that because the copyright act doesn’t have the legal teeth to bite down on overseas offenders, new legislation is crucial if made-in-the-U.S.A. content is to be protected in the global wilderness of the Internet.
Q Why would anyone have a problem with such a law?
A Much of the controversy lies in the legislation’s vague, even esoteric language. And as Goldman points out, “the intermediaries like the credit-card companies may not be as careful as the law requires them to be, and they could cut off a legitimate website that they mistook as a rogue. These intermediaries doing the dirty work could make mistakes.”
Q Why are the two sides so adamant about their positions on the bills?
A Tiffiniy Cheng, director of online-freedom advocacy group Fight for the Future, says both the SOPA and the Senate bill as written “give corporations too much power to take down entire sites over what they consider a copyright infringement. And the language in the bills is really vague when it comes to ‘enabling copyright infringement.’ ”
Cheng says the vagaries of the legislation could encourage credit-card companies and ad networks to “go on the safe side and comply with all requests from rights owners to shut down a site, even if it’s not really doing anything wrong. Plus, it could lead other sites to self-censor their posts to risk even the chance of liability.”
But in a statement supporting SOPA, the Motion Picture Association of America points out that “the potential harm from rogue sites — exposure to malware, identity theft, unsafe and untested medicines and other counterfeit products, and lost jobs and income for creative workers — is profound. Too much is at stake for us to allow rogue sites and those who operate them to continue to steal creative works with impunity.”
Q Who are the online protesters and what do they hope to achieve?
A MoveOn.org is joining Reddit, Wikipedia, Mozilla and thousands of other sites, many of them in Silicon Valley, in a show of opposition to what they call “Internet censorship legislation that threatens free speech and technology innovation on the Internet.”
Cheng said more than 7,000 websites have agreed to take some sort of online action to rally opposition to the two bills, with Wikipedia planning to go dark for 24 hours starting 9 p.m. PST Tuesday. Other sites, including Mountain View-based Google, planned to issue protest statements on their home pages.
Q What’s the political prognosis for the legislation?
A Both bills are currently tied up in Congress, with the Senate bill on hold while SOPA’s fate is pending action by the House Judiciary Committee. More shadows loom after the Obama administration issued a statement saying, “We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”
San Jose State business professor Jeffrey Gaines suspects both bills are “dead on arrival until after the November election because of intense lobbying on both sides. We may eventually see a boiled-down version that targets some of the more controversial issues in the bills. But when lawmakers try to legislate individual issues like this, the net result is that the lobbyists find other ways to get around them.”
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689. Follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.