If any of my readers have been on the Internet today, I imagine you’ve noticed an unusual amount of the color black covering up some of your sites or their logos. Google.com has a solid black banner stretching across its typically bright logo; Wikipedia’s English-Language page sports an ominous, monochromatic theme; WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed page that usually features the day’s popular blogs has replaced their links with black bars. Even the pages of this blog are decorated with a black ribbon in the upper right-hand corner. Why? Like many thousands of sites across the Web today, I’m protesting in 21st-century style: virtually.
Since it was announced in late October, the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act has come under increasingly harsh fire, and as the Congressional vote next week continues to approach, opposition has exploded across the Internet. January 18 was the set date for a Web-wide protest featuring the black censorship bars, though many sites plan to continue their protest until the vote. The question that plagues Internet users and non-users alike is: Why?
An Web-based protest is an unusual approach to the typical signs and megaphones and Occupy Zucotti Park stereotype of protesting. But, since the act protested is aimed at the Internet, it seems appropriate that the majority of organized opposition should come from there. So what exactly are we protesting? In the most recent WordPress.com newsletter, blogger Jane Wells outlined how WordPress users could show their support of the protest and included an excellent video summing up SOPA/PIPA:
Obviously, the video comes from a biased perspective, but I think it accurately covers the meat of SOPA/PIPA. If passed, the acts will give the government, media, and entertainment firms the right to not only sue websites and users for using copyrighted material (which they already can), but also to remove the pirated content and/or shut down the website entirely for its infraction, whether it was intentional or not. The key piece of all this is that these restrictions don’t just apply to whole websites or Internet administers: these rules are also directed at Internet users. This means that anybody who posts copyrighted material to social networking sites, blogs, or media sharing sites can be blocked, sued, or jailed for their infringement. The problem with this is that the language in the acts is so ambiguous that these rules could apply to anything: a song playing the background of a YouTube video, a movie clip posted to Facebook, a photo added on Tumblr, a link uploaded on Twitter…things social media users do everyday without thinking twice, under SOPA/PIPA would be seen as criminal acts and would be punished as such.
Stealing copyrighted material and passing it along is piracy, but the infringements covered in SOPA/PIPA would apply to far more than malicious theft. Most of the copyrighted material available on the Internet is there because it has already been released. For example, let’s say somebody buys a newly released music album, plays it in their kitchen and videotapes their kid dancing to it. Then, that video is placed on YouTube for the world to enjoy. Although the CD is copyrighted to its artist and/or production company, it has been generally released to the public for the public’s use. Now, two things could happen here: somebody who does not own the album sees this video, decides to record it and steals the song off the video, then passes it off as the real deal. This is Internet piracy, and this is the type of crime SOPA/PIPA and similar laws want to prevent. The second option is this: the video is posted to YouTube and nothing malicious happens, but the poster is still prosecuted for copyright infringement for putting up that video at all because it has copyrighted material in it. The poster is not trying to steal it from the artist (like in the first example), but they are still punished. This is unjust, and according to the language in the act itself, this is what would happen under SOPA/PIPA: “Expands the offense of criminal copyright infringement to include public performances of: (1) copyrighted work by digital transmission, and (2) work intended for commercial dissemination by making it available on a computer network.” (Courtesy of The Library of Congress Bill Summary and Status) This is good intentions taken entirely too far.
The intent of SOPA/PIPA is not malicious. It’s meant to bring better business to the media and entertainment realms. With SOPA/PIPA, instead of watching TV shows on YouTube, users will have to view episodes via cable and satellite. Instead of finding song lyrics or music on public domain websites, listeners will have to buy the CD. Instead of browsing and editing photos on Tumblr, photographers will have to subscribe to private photo sharing programs. All these options draw business away from the Internet and toward the entertainment industries, hopefully boosting the economy in the process. The other obvious bonus to this legislation is the prevention of Internet piracy. Piracy is a crime (sorry, Jack), and unfortunately it is a rampant one. SOPA/PIPA aims to significantly reduce piracy by removing the sources and locations of pirated material. In conclusion, the end is a positive one, but the means are far from acceptable.
At the heart of SOPA/PIPA is the word writers and artists hate to hear more than any other: censorship. According to Dictionary.com, “to censor” means to, “examine (as a publication or film) in order to suppress or delete any contents considered objectionable.” Censorship, according to its definition, is an indefinite thing. It varies on opinion, on who’s doing the censoring. What one person considers acceptable, another may disapprove of. This variance in opinion is at the heart of censorship and the controversy around SOPA/PIPA, because instead of a person deciding what’s acceptable and what’s not, an organization will be: the government.
Forgive me for feeling Orwellian, but it’s impossible not to in this situation. The concept of censorship goes against everything our Founding Fathers intended when they wrote our nation’s laws. It is for a reason that the first amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” (Courtesy of http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/billofrights) The very first thing our Fathers worried about in this nation was the same restrictions that brought the Puritans to these shores in the first place. America is a nation built on tenants of freedom: freedom to say, do, and believe what we wish. Although not everything said, done, and believed in America may be right, at least we have the freedom to say, do, and believe it anyway. Most nations in the world can’t say that.
SOPA/PIPA, if passed, will be in direct violation of the First Amendment and freedom of speech. As an American writer who strongly believes in the freedoms our nation was built on, I’m joining the protest against this legislation. Although its intentions may be positive, its restrictions are harsh and unfair. Over-punishing a crime won’t stop it, and going against the tenants of our nation is definitely not a viable solution. For now, the black banner will remain at the top of my blog: Stop Censorship.