On January 18, dozens of popular websites and Internet search portals went dark to protest HR 3261, the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have imposed legal sanctions on websites that posted or linked to other websites that posted content in violation of copyrights on that material. By the end of the week, congressional support for SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and its cousin in the U.S. Senate, PIPA (Protect IP Act), had fallen apart.
SOPA and PIPA were described in a CBS News article as “bills intended to strengthen protections against copyright infringement and intellectual property.” But where content providers viewed the bills as protection, the Internet platform providers viewed the bills as heavy-handed, government censorship. Where do you stand?
The dual bills were intended to revamp and update existing laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DCMA), which required the removal of specific unauthorized content. Over the years, as the volume of content and the variety of mechanisms for posting and copying it have mushroomed, DMCA has become harder to enforce.
Principally, the legal means of getting content removed has become significantly more costly and about as painstaking as neurosurgery. Content providers also complain that unauthorized content can easily be posted on foreign websites that have links to virtually any website in the United States and those foreign sites are unreachable. Just do a quick search online for bootleg copies of your favorite movies to see how pervasive the pirating problem is.
SOPA and PIPA would make it possible for the government to shut down any Internet platform which publishes unauthorized content, as well as any platform which merely links to another provider that does. Internet companies that participated in the blackout, like Reddit, WordPress, Wired, and Wikipedia, complain that this provision is unreasonable and onerous.
They also say it would stifle the online economy in at least two ways. First, it would give Internet companies the costly task of policing every web link that connects them to possible foreign content pirates. And that’s assuming they actually could find every single link to unauthorized content, which they argue is functionally impossible.
Second, the bills would trigger legal defense fees in such quantity that it would become impossible for startups to enter the Internet arena. Opponents of the bills pointed out that the inherent character of the Internet is entrepreneurial and such legal costs would effectively end innovation and the unlimited opportunities for startups.
Somewhere in middle of the debate is agreement that content needs to be protected, while simultaneously preserving the economic engine of an open Internet. A May 2011 study by McKinsey Global Institute researched the economic impact of the Internet in 13 of the world’s top economies and found that the web contribution is 3.4% of gross domestic product in those countries. Moreover, the Internet accounted for 21% of GDP growth in those same countries over the past five years.
The controversy has implications for many parts of the Internet community, from major Internet platforms to e-commerce retailers to non-profit fundraisers to payment processors. Content is the meat and potatoes of any online presence, including advertising. For poorly regulated foreign Internet operators, access to content is money in the bank. Cyber criminals overseas are already able to redirect American web surfers from legitimate US-based sites to a variety of illicit content.
A Forbes Magazine article reported that the White House withdrew its support for SOPA and PIPA even before the blackout, but urged all parties to come to a mutually agreeable solution, asking them to “adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.”