Web Goes Dark in SOPA Protest

The internet was a much “darker” this last few days as a number of high profile websites voluntarily “blacked out” in protest at a new anti-piracy bill being put before Congress in the US.

Sites including Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing and the Cheezeburger Network all took part in an online “blackout” protest against two controversial acts that were due to be discussed by law makers in the US; the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).

Bills H.R. 3261 and S.968 have been drafted primarily as an anti-piracy measure and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they have gained the support of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Viacom as well as other prominent publishers and trademark holders.

Under SOPA, a rights holder based in the US would be legally entitled to try to pull the plug on any site based overseas that they feel is violating – or aiding others in violating – their intellectual property rights. So, for example, a movie studio in Hollywood could take action against a site based in Europe if it believed it was aiding the illegal copying and distribution of its content.

Once a claim has been made, the studio can demand that Google removes that site from its search results, that payment services (such as PayPal) no longer accept monetary transactions to or from that site, that advertising services pull all ads and finances from it and that the site’s ISP prevent people from visiting the site.

However, the proposed legislation has generated a fury online, with critics claiming that the acts amount to censorship of the web and go well beyond the remit of clamping down on piracy.

One of the principle criticisms of SOPA is that copyright holders could effectively “shut down” a website without any form of due process. Taking the above example, the movie studio could make a claim against another site and, without any hearing or court ruling, search engines, domain name services and ISPs would have just five days to either comply or challenge the claim.

SOPA also includes what has been termed an “anti-circumvention” clause which would make it an offence to effectively tell people how to avoid SOPA. So for example, if you linked to a file-sharing site in your Facebook status, Facebook would be required to remove it – or it could be shut down as well.

Critics also claim that the bills are far too broad in their wording, effectively allowing the US to censor anything that could be remotely deemed to be a breach of copyright. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) already exists to allow copyright holders to have content removed where it has been illegally posted (we have all seen those ‘This video have been removed due to a copyright claim’ messages on Youtube), so why do we need SOPA?

Well, critics argue that the wording in SOPA would allow the US to, for example, effectively censor whistleblowing and investigative journalism – sites such as Wikileaks could be taken down for hosting leaked government documents, images or video for example. The legislation could also be used to prevent online product reviews, parody and free speech.

The strength of this week’s blackouts, as well as on-going campaigns against supporters of SOPA (such as domain registrar GoDaddy) has prompted eight US lawmakers withdrawing their support for the proposed bills whilst President Barack Obama is also against the legislation.

The US House of Representatives plans to resume work on SOPA next month whilst the Senate is expected to start voting on 24 January on how to proceed on PIPA.

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