If you were browsing in the internet today (January 18, 2012), there’s a good chance that you’ve encountered ‘black’ sites or sites with messages protesting two bills before US Congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) are designed to criminalize acts of piracy on the internet (i.e. downloading or sharing copyrighted materials without permission to do so) and provide the means to prosecute the offenders (in some cases without due process). If these bills are passed, they will “essentially blacklist foreign websites accused of hosting copyright-infringing content” (Globe and Mail, January 17, 2012) and would effectively shut down sites like YouTube and Flickr. SOPA and PIPA were written with the express purpose of protecting the entertainment industry, which means that the entertainment industry (i.e. private organizations) will be defining proper use of the internet and will have control over content and accessibility to content on the internet. I am not someone who illegally downloads music (honestly, I will pay my 99cents for a song) but I recognize the dangers these restrictions present.
Questions of copyright, maintaining and honouring it, are common and vital in the academic sphere just as it is in the literary, music or art fields. People’s opinions may differ but there must be a middle ground between complete open access, no barriers files and sharing and this tightly controlled and oppressive mandate. Because, according to the SOPA bill, no matter what your opinion of copyright accessibility, you are still libel for prosecution if you link to a site that contains pirated or copyright infringing material. So, unless you can scan through all of YouTube to ensure that there are no offending videos contained within (which is pretty much impossible), you had best not link to anything on the site. The same can be said for Flickr, wikipedia, reddit or any other user driven site.
Not too surprisingly, the internet is responding in full force to protest these bills and encourage people to voice their concerns and opinions. Many sites, like the popular internet comic strips xkcd and theoatmeal.com, Wired Magazine and the American Google main page (google.com rather than google.ca) provided individualized content to illustrate why they oppose the bills and how readers can voice their concerns to their representatives. Twitter was even considerate enough to link to a petition for non-US residents. The Globe & Mail has a great article covering the 4 main reasons that we (as Canadians) should be concerned (including the point that the many Canadian IP addresses are held in the US and would therefore be under these proposed laws). Creativity Online lists their 10 best online protests (which only makes me love McSweeneys even more, if possible). And, last but certainly not least, the folks at Twitter have created a video that captures the ins-and-outs of this bill (they focus on PIPA) and it’s hard not to be concerned about these proposed laws and their implications.
There is some push back, even from early supporters of the bills, but they are still scheduled (at this time any way) to go before the house next week.