Yesterday hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, staged a blackout, shutting down their services for 24 hours in protest at the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bills which are currently being discussed in the House of Representatives and the Senate in the US.
Many internet companies argue that SOPA and PIPA would fatally damage the free and open nature of the internet and would place unreasonable demands on them to monitor the material hosted on their sites. For many user-generated content sites, like Wikipedia, Twitter and YouTube , users are responsible for their own content and not the company. Their business model rests on the fact that it does not control what its users post. Under current legislation, websites are not liable for damages as long as they remove pirated content when they are notified by the copyright holder.
These new bills are designed to crack down on copyright infringement and trafficking in counterfeit goods in the US. The main targets are foreign ‘rogue websites’, piracy sites that are hosted abroad and are therefore currently outside the reach of US law. The bills would compel internet service providers (ISPs) to use Domain Name Service (DNS)-blocking and filtering to prevent US web surfers from accessing certain sites. Internet companies would be forced to police their own sites to ensure there are no copyright infringements . Fundamental changes would need to be made to user generated content sites.
Serious concerns have been raised that the SOPA bill would authorise the US Department of Justice to seek court orders against websites outside US jurisdiction. Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales put the case well when he stated, ‘we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and sets a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world’.
While it is unlikely that SOPA or PIPA will get passed in their current form, there are increasing calls for more restrictions and regulations online. This is a very worrying trend for the future of the web and it is a trend that should be challenged as strongly as possible.