Those of us who online research, or are curious about a subject or a historical event, know, love and depend upon Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has amassed the largest compendium of human knowledge in history. So imagine how the millions of internet users are surviving today, Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 as Wikipedia has blacked out its web site for the entire 24 hours.
Wikipedia and other techno sites on the internet are protesting a pair of bills being considered in the US congress: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the US house of representatives and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) in the US senate. What these bills aim to do is to provide more tools to prevent foreign web sites from infringing on copyrighted materials by offering pirated products such as software, movies, music, and so forth.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, and the problem is not that there is disagreement over the need to protect copyrights. The real problem is, among other things, the near-unlimited power that would be granted to certain companies to black out suspected web sites without a court order or government oversight if the site has any copyrighted material on it. That could include social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and Google, where millions of people interact and it is impossible for anyone to examine and police every single item that millions of contributors place on these sites, or make available via these sites.
Additionally, the SOPA bill contains a provision that would allow the US government to target web sites that provide information regarding how to get around the censorship provisions in the this bill. In other words, the government could pick and choose which web sites to go after, or black out, or order private internet providers to black out or hide, solely on the basis of available information on that site. This would constitute an unconstitutional “prior restraint” against protected free speech, as guaranteed in the 1st amendment in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. It would also have the effect of severely limiting online innovation, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). For a more comprehensive examination of SOPA and PIPA and their detrimental effects on the internet and free speech, click HERE.
What’s interesting and even somewhat amusing about these bills is who supports them and who opposes them. The bills are the result of intense lobbying by groups in the entertainment and media industry such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Time-Warner and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). They all support the bills as a way to protect their copyrighted properties. On the other hand, the internet- and computer-techno-intensive companies such as Wikipedia, AOL, YouTube and the social networks are adamantly opposed to these bills in their present form.
Additionally, right-leaning venture capitalists seem to have joined with left-leaning free speech advocates by stating that they would not want to invest in online start-ups if these bills pass because of the massively increased liability they would face if someone posted something (anything!) found to be copyrighted.
As a result of the convoluted division of issues with these bills, both democrats and republicans are jumping on both the anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA bandwagons, just as some members of both parties support the bills. It’s unfortunate that it takes something like this to see some bipartisanship occur in Congress.
On the other hand, Wikipedia shutting down for a day in protest isn’t something you get to see every day, either.
For those that have an opinion about these bills, several organizations have been sending out emails asking people to sign on to petitions against these bills. If you go to Wikipedia today, you’ll see one way to get the message to your congresspeople. Or you can go directly to this site to just fill in the blanks and get your view up to congress.
This actually is very important stuff. Once censorship starts, even for the noblest of causes, it is very hard to stop and reverse. And besides, who wants an internet where there is no Facebook, no Twitter, no free online encyclopedia with all human knowledge just a click away, and no YouTube?
No YouTube??? They may as will just shut the entire internet down if there’s no YouTube!!! 🙂