The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its counterpart in the Senate, The Protect IP Act, contain the seeds of the demise of the internet as we know it. The internet that, through websites like Tumblr and Youtube, directly affects mine and others’ abilities to promote our own content, perform research, and collaborate. The internet that has allowed dissidents in Egypt, Syria, and Iran to coordinate protests and demonstrations. The internet that has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past decade. The internet.
SOPA is designed to prevent you from accessing websites that the corporations don’t want you using, or at least to make finding them more difficult. By law, internet service providers (ISPs) will be barred from allowing users to access the domain names of targeted websites based upon supposed copyright violations. Search engines like Google and Yahoo! could be forced to modify search results to weed out suspected infringement, and it has been speculated that E-mail providers may be called upon to comb private messages for incriminating links. SOPA sets a depressingly low bar for the standards of internet freedom in the country that is (supposedly) the “free-est” on earth. The last time I had to circumvent internet restrictions like this, a friend had to help me log into Facebook illegally. We were in Beijing.
In SOPA section 104, ISPs are granted “immunity” if they agree to block websites with copyrighted material. This creates a conflict of interests for ISPs that may use alleged infringement to block access to their competitor’s websites. Carl Jensen, professor emeritus of Sociology and Communications at Sonoma State University and founder of Project Censored, defines this sort of activity as “‘direct economic censorship,’ which occurs when an advertiser overtly dictates to the mass media what the public shall or shall not see or hear.”
It’s admittedly difficult to talk about ulterior motives without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but the convenient side effects of SOPA seem almost too obvious to ignore. This is the order of operations for quashing cyber-dissidence in many totalitarian regimes; the wealthy pressure the government to pressure the ISPs to, in effect, censor the internet.
“Free speech and freedom of expression are crucially influenced by copyright law and digital rights management.” Explains Nate Villeneuve, a securities researcher who has worked on software that allows Chinese internet users to access banned websites through proxies. “…Often, countries will build on commercial filtering technology lists, adding specific websites pertinent to their respective countries. Blocked sites most often include opposition political parties or newspapers, human rights organizations, international news organizations and content critical of the Government.”
Since illegal downloaders will still be able to access websites just by using their IP addresses, SOPA isn’t even projected to cut down on piracy. There is no logical reason to think that this will have any economically beneficial effect. Says James Allworth of the Harvard Business School,
“It contains provisions that will chill innovation. It contains provisions that will tinker with the fundamental fabric of the internet. It gives private corporations the power to censor. And best of all, it bypasses due legal process to do much of it… The U.S. is in a jobs crisis, and one of the few bright spots on the horizon are tech firms like Facebook and Twitter. Make no mistake: this bill threatens their very existence. At best, it will send them fleeing overseas. And for what? To prop up the business model of an industry in the midst of disruption.”
Fear of SOPA’s invocation by major corporations will almost certainly increase self imposed censorship among startups and small internet businesses, since any site that is suspected of not doing its filtering well enough can be taken to court.
Those counting on American businesses taking it upon themselves to invoke their newfound powers conservatively in the interest of free speech may or may not be disappointed. On one hand, companies like Cisco have sold technologies to the Chinese Government that have helped to censor websites demanding Government transparency, a free Tibet, and Democracy. Yahoo! also collaborated with the Chinese to remove “offensive” material from the Chinese language version of its search engine.
On the other is the internet “blackout” proposed by Anonymous. There are rumors that Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, and others may participate by going offline if the bill is passed.
“(This is) an oppressive new law” Anonymous says, “that will allow the Federal Government of the United States to shut down, arrest, fine and prosecute any website and its operator(s) at the behest of corporations who can and do stand to profit from weaponized citizenship.”
For those in the United States, find out whether your Representative supports SOPA and whether your Senators support the Protect IP Act. Treat them to an E-mail-or preferably a phonecall-let them know exactly how you feel about their position, and tell them whether or not they can count on your vote next election. My current Representative, Jim Sensebrenner, opposes Protect IP, but my home town’s representative, Tom Petri, doesn’t have anything about it on his website. I’m not sure where he stands. The sponsor of the Protect IP act is Senator Patrick Leahy. SOPA is sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith. Their E-mails may be filtered for out of state callers, so get in touch however you can.
The Anti-SOPA armory
Android users can download the Boycott SOPA app here.
Websites likely to be targeted by SOPA may become accessible only via their IP addresses. IPs can be found here.
Sign the petition demanding that Google participate in the blackout protests here.
Finally, just in case things get really bad, (like “fifth of November” bad) this handbook contains tips and tricks for navigating the web discreetly and posting information anonymously.
These are the sources that I brutally strip-mined to learn more about SOPA and Protect IP. I especially recommend http://americancensorship.org/ for further reading. It’s where I found expert opinions along with the above video and additional information.
20 Years of Censored News by Carl Jensen
Ways To Get Around Censorship by Nate Villeneuve