The Internet has transformed our civilization on a scale not seen since the printing press, but nothing important and essential goes unlegislated forever. You may have noticed that a number of your favorite websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and Wordpress have gone dark today in protest of something called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These bills currently working their way through the United States House of Representatives and Senate respectively would gut the fair use and safe harbor provisions that allow people to legitimately quote articles, post images, and share music and video clips online (among other things). Wikipedia explains these overly broad and poorly written bills currently working their way through Congress (although Wikipedia is offline today, SOPA-related articles remain accessible):
[SOPA] would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who makes the request, the court order could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bill would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison for ten such infringements within six months. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement.
Opponents say that it violates the First Amendment, is Internet censorship, will cripple the Internet, and will threaten whistle-blowing and other free speech actions. Opponents have initiated a number of protest actions, including petition drives, boycotts of companies that support the legislation, and planned service blackouts by English Wikipedia and major Internet companies scheduled to coincide with the next Congressional hearing on the matter.
The House Judiciary Committee held hearings on November 16 and December 15, 2011. The Committee was scheduled to continue debate in January 2012, but on January 17 Chairman Smith said that "[d]ue to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February."
Opponents have warned that SOPA would have a negative impact on online communities. Journalist Rebecca MacKinnon argued in an op-ed that making companies liable for users' actions could have a chilling effect on user-generated sites such as YouTube. "The intention is not the same as China’s Great Firewall, a nationwide system of Web censorship, but the practical effect could be similar," she says. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) warned that websites Etsy, Flickr and Vimeo all seemed likely to shut down if the bill becomes law. Policy analysts for New America Foundation say this legislation would enable law enforcement to take down an entire domain due to something posted on a single blog, arguing, "an entire largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority."
Additional concerns include the impact on common Internet functions such as linking or access data from the cloud. EFF claimed the bill would ban linking to sites deemed offending, even in search results and on services such as Twitter. Christian Dawson, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Virginia-based hosting company ServInt, predicted that the legislation would lead to many cloud computing and Web hosting services moving out of the US to avoid lawsuits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation have stated that the requirement that any site must self-police user generated content would impose significant liability costs and explains "why venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass."
The potential abuse of this prospective law is staggering. As Gizmodo points out, "The resources it would take to self-police are monumental for established companies, and unattainable for start-ups. SOPA would censor every online social outlet you have, and prevent new ones from emerging." Today's Internet strike may inconvenience you for a few hours, but if either of these bills become law, then today's efforts are just a sample of what you can expect. Many of your favorite websites will have to shut down or drastically censor themselves in order to comply with the law. Small independent sites like Press The Buttons would cease to exist in their current forms. Even large sites like Facebook and Twitter would have to drastically alter their policies in order to continue to do business. I urge all of you who live in the United States to contact your senators and representative today and voice your opinion on the so-called Internet blacklist bills. Take a break from Steelport, head away from Hyrule, and come out of Karkand in order to make those calls, write those letters, and send that e-mail. Spread the word to your friends and family, too. While stopping piracy is important, crippling the open Internet to do it is about as counterproductive and outright harmful as things get.