On January 18th, the Internet went into widespread protest. Major websites like Google and YouTube urged users to contact their representatives and sign petitions against proposed anti-online piracy legislation. Other sites like Wikipedia and Reddit shut down their sites for the day, and encouraged visitors to use the time they would have spent on the site to fight the bill.
As a result, congress has currently decided to postpone the bills indefinitely.
A day after these protests, the FBI and the Justice Department seized and shut down the major file-sharing website, Megaupload, for copyright infringement. This action demonstrated the power the government has without the bills being passed.
Backed by major media companies like Time Warner and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)—SOPA, in the House of Representatives and PIPA, in the Senate, would allow the government to shut down websites they suspect of online piracy and copyright infringement.
It is difficult for major media companies to track and shut down infringing websites based in foreign countries, so they plan to use SOPA and PIPA to potentially shut down search engines like Google which may have links to these “illegal” websites.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stated in response to the Jan. 18 protests that “[i]t’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation.”
Opponents disagree, stating that these bills could lead to government censorship of the Internet.
“Requiring search engines to delete a domain name begins a worldwide arms race of unprecedented ‘censorship’ of the web,” wrote Google Vice President, Vint Cerf. “Once you begin to cut off links—once you become China-esque—you start a snowball effect from which there is no end.”
The act of posting links from other websites (on Facebook or Twitter, for example) would be copyright infringement according to these bills, and the accused can go to jail. Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload, was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
SOPA and PIPA could jeopardize freedom of expression, and freedom of information on the Internet.
“The Internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the Internet’s development,” Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg stated in opposition to SOPA and PIPA. “The world today needs political leaders who are pro-Internet.”
PIPA would, furthermore, drastically increase the amount of statutory damages awarded to media companies like the MPAA and the RIAA for copyright infringement. Instead of paying $150,000 in damages for copying 50 songs, the infringer would be liable for $7.5 million.
Under SOPA and PIPA, the Justice Department has the right to seize all assets and property of the infringer based on accusations of piracy.
Like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), SOPA and PIPA are not new legislation. The government already has the power to shut down websites, like it already has the power to detain suspects indefinitely without charge or trial.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a previously passed law, has given studios the power to stop piracy on websites like YouTube and Facebook. The content gets taken down, but the infringer is not penalized.
To pass these laws legalizes the erosion of our civil liberties. “It’s simply not a principle [Fifth Amendment] that is believed in any longer, and therefore is not remotely observed,” stated Glen Greenwald of Salon.com.