As the owner of a blog dedicated primarily to one particular topic (i.e. Anaheim Ducks hockey), it is incumbent upon me not to editorialize on too many issues beyond the purview of our normal coverage. One reason for that is to avoid diluting our product and see it reduced to just another unfocused site in a sea of billions. The other, more important reason is to avoid alienating readers who may not share those opinions. On matters of professional sport, spirited debate is expected and even welcomed. On issues of politics, however, it can be a real minefield, and sites like ours are wise to leave its navigation to the experts.
Today, I am here to tell you the debate surrounding internet freedom is one issue about which I will not be silent.
Two bills are currently making their way through various levels of the United States government, each with the purported aim of thwarting internet “piracy” (I use quotes because it’s actually copyright infringement — might as well call a spade a spade). SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA, or the PROTECT IP (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property) Act, both promise to protect the work of American rightsholders from the threat of foreign thievery. Far be it from me to question the true motivation behind the bills or the $94 million the entertainment industry paid to have them drafted, but suffice it to say that the ambiguity in the language within them is enough to not only stifle innovation in the technology sector — one of the few growth industries in a still-reeling American economy — but also leave innumerable innocent bystanders upended in its wake. Ironically, they will ultimately fail at the very tasks they have set out to accomplish.
Indeed, it would be a slippery slope if the entertainment industry had the ability to bend the letter and spirit of the law to their liking. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA, as it’s commonly referred to), although itself not a good piece of legislation and still frequently abused by the industry, still contains an invaluable safe-harbor provision that protects sites from liability if its users are engaging in infringing activity, so long as they comply with takedown requests. SOPA, on the other hand, makes no pretensions of allowing for due process and could theoretically allow a plaintiff to effectively remove a defendant’s entire web site from the internet before the latter has a change to even examine the charges that have been levied.
Reddit sysadmin Jason Harvey has posted a technical analysis on the bills and why their provisions are both insufficient and too broad in scope.
SOPA and PROTECT IP contain no provisions to actually remove copyrighted content, but rather focus on the censorship of links to entire domains.
If the Attorney General served reddit with an order to remove links to a domain, we would be required to scrub every post and comment on the site containing the domain and censor the links out, even if the specific link contained no infringing content. We would also need to implement a system to automatically censor the domain from any future posts or comments. This places a measurable burden upon the site’s technical infrastructure. It also damages one of the most important tenets of reddit, and the internet as a whole – free and open discussion about whatever the fuck you want.
Numerous websites across the internet — notably Wikipedia and reddit — have gone dark today in protest. The terrifying reality is that if a bill like SOPA gets passed into law, its ambiguous language could allow malevolent parties to abuse its powers and ultimately force such pages offline and their owners out of business.
I am not an American. I do not profess to be on the frontline should this bill pass and start wreaking havoc as it appears destined to do. It would be naive, however, to suggest that as a Canadian the ripple effect would not reach my country very quickly. Many major players on the web are vulnerable to this legislation. Sites that rely on user-generated content are especially at-risk: Twitter and Facebook come to mind, and both have been very public in their opposition to SOPA, specifically. Google, as a link aggregator, could be held liable if an offending link appears in its search results. What does Lamar Smith (SOPA is his brainchild) propose to do in such a scenario? Take Google offline? Even if it were able to successfully delist offending links immediately, the whack-a-mole principle is always in play on the internet: take one site down and ten more will spring forth to replace it forthwith. An unintended, although not as hotly discussed, consequence could be that these American companies (all of which serve a global market) take their business to another country with less tyrannical laws regarding online content. Such moves could irreparably damage the American economy and send the country back on a downward spiral toward a full-blown recession. Admittedly that’s a little bit of a leap in logic, but if your company was forced to decide between bankrupting itself to abide by the law (or shutting down its business entirely if its model can’t be “fixed”) and moving, the ones with enough money will choose the second option.
Moreover, Quacked is a site that, while based on almost entirely original content, also employs limited, editorial use of copyrighted materials (the pictures you see atop every article). Granted that’s always been right on the line of fair use, but to-date I have not received a single takedown request or cease-and-desist order. SOPA or PROTECT IP would both grant an accuser (e.g. Getty Images) privilege to file a complaint with our web host, who would then be bound to remove our site because it’s easier and quicker than trying to work out the differences if there is a threat of litigation hanging over the situation. One complaint over a single image on this blog could bring the entire domain offline before I would get my day in court, not that it would likely arrive because we do not have a team of lawyers to fight such battles.
Mind you, all of this is being wrapped in the American flag and being presented as a measure of security against “foreigners” who seek only to profit off the hard work of upstanding American citizens — or at least the ones who make enough money to influence federal policy. To say nothing of the fact that the U.S. government is funding the development of tools to help the residents in other countries living under “repressive regimes” circumvent such measures, passing these bills into law would rank among the highest of hypocrisy offenses and obviate any discussion of the United States occupying any sort of moral high ground. After all, why worry about censorship in other countries when your primary focus is on stopping the scourge of copyright infringement through the same types of tactics in your own backyard?
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. This fight, while important, will not be the last. It is imperative that we do not take what we have for granted; if we do, we risk losing the last bastion of truly free speech. Our rights and freedoms will take a back seat to the interests of corporations that have not been able to develop a cogent business model necessary to survive in the digital age.
That simply cannot be allowed to happen.