Co-authored by Brian Gross 

Wikipedia SOPA BlackoutIf you’re like me (and 375 million others), then you use Google as your primary search engine, and like most Google users, we are accustomed to seeing the occasional “Doodle” in place of the familiar Google logo. In case you didn’t know, Doodles are the spontaneous and fun changes that Google makes to its logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries and other historic milestones. But on January 18th, Google users did not find a colorful Doodle, instead the familiar Google logo was shrouded in black. The reason? Well, there are two actually; SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act, Senate Bill 968). These twin bills are currently before the House and Senate, and if passed would provide prosecutors of the Justice Department greater powers to combat foreign-based websites that facilitate pirated content to users in the United States. On its face, this goal appears righteous enough. However, opponents of the these bills, including internet powerhouses like Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and Google claim that if passed these laws will “jeopardize freedom and shift power of the independent web into the hands of corporations.” 

Wednesday’s internet SOPA Black Out, which included not only Google’s grim logo but a complete block of the Wikipedia website was the first coordinated effort by the aforementioned opponents in an effort to promote public awareness and understanding of exactly what these bills will do to inhibit people’s access to online information; and it may have actually worked to some degree, on Wednesday United States Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) tweeted “Anti- #PIPA, #SOPA traffic has temporarily shut down our website.” That wasn’t the only fallout from the blackout, it appears that many of the politicians who originally supported these bills are now publically announcing their opposition. A recent article posted by Time Magazine’s online blog Techland reported that after the blackout

at least 10 senators and nearly twice that many House members have announced their opposition.

However, proponents of the bills still remain, and while there are already laws in place to help combat online piracy such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) of 1998, these proponents are claiming that these new bills will target the “rogue” websites that avoid US copyright law and are currently out of DCMA’s reach.  So what does all this mean for law abiding citizens who don’t engage in online pirating? Plenty actually.

Consider the following:

  • Because the wording contained in these bills is vague and the penalties steep for any site accused of “enabling or facilitating piracy”, there exists the very real potential for abuse – even being associated with a “rogue” site may be enough to land you in trouble with Uncle Sam.
  • Taken one step further, it is possible that blogs or sites where you can post ideas – even kitchen recipes – could land you in jail for a maximum of 5 years under the current versions of these laws!
  • SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression, and ultimately seeks to regulate the free expression and publishing of independent ideas on the web.  According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), SOPA would break the internet, kill job creation, and potentially stop the innovation of the next twitter or tumblr.
  • On the other hand, internet piracy costs US companies about $135 billion every year, with the largest bite coming out of the entertainment industry.   (Even Kim Kardashian recently tweeted about SOPA!)
  • Under the new regime of SOPA/PIPA anyone found guilty of streaming copyrighted content without permission 10 or more times within six months should go to jail.

In this blogger’s opinion, the consequences of passing SOPA/PIPA as they are currently structured would impact our ability to share and obtain independent knowledge in ways that we can’t even conceive of yet, because we won’t have access to the ideas that will help conceive them.

We will continue to track the progress of these bills and report updates to our readers as they develop.