The Battle for the Internet: SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA 

Many question if online piracy legislation goes too far

"Iam wholeheartedly against the infringement of copyright," Steven Colbert proclaimed on a recent episode of The Colbert Report. The comedian went on to say that he believes in the phrase so much, he had it trademarked and emblazoned on a Mickey Mouse doll. In hilarious fashion, the skit poked fun at a controversial bill that--in its intent to protect intellectual property rights--dipped into issues like censorship and e-commerce.

The voluminous bill--which was more than 70 pages long--would have put legal mechanisms in place to shut down Internet websites suspected of directly or indirectly infringing on intellectual property rights. Introduced by Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, H.R. 3261 or the Stop Online Privacy Act, had both widespread opposition and support from the biggest media companies in the country. SOPA's counterpart in the Senate, S. 968, or the Protect IP Act of 2011, granted authority to the U.S. attorney general to take action against a registrant of a foreign domain name by an Internet site dedicated to infringing activities.

If enacted, SOPA would have enabled the attorney general to seek court orders that would have shut down websites "committing or facilitating" intellectual property rights infringements; required Internet providers to block sites infringing on these rights; included among criminal offenses copies of public performances; and increased the penalties for violations of intellectual property rights.

Though lawmakers held a markup session at the end of 2011, they ultimately decided to postpone further action until this legislative session. On Jan. 20, Smith indefinitely postponed consideration of the bill saying: "The committee will continue work with both copyright owners and Internet companies to develop proposals that combat online piracy and protect America's intellectual property. We welcome input from all organizations and individuals who have an honest difference of opinion about how best to address this widespread problem. The committee remains committed to finding a solution to the problem of online piracy that protects American intellectual property and innovation."

As evidenced by the nature of the companies and sites that publicly denounced the legislation--names like Wikipedia and Craigslist--the bill's scope encompassed far more than the intellectual property rights (and revenues) it sought to protect. Because the proposed legislation gave the AG the ability to shut down websites through court orders, many worried about the bill's potential to stifle creative sharing and free e-commerce.

Wikipedia staged its first-ever public protest by shutting down its English site for 24 hours on Jan. 18. Several other sites, including Reddit and XDA, followed or threatened to follow suit. Craigslist, the free classifieds site, posted a prominent "Stop SOPA and PIPA" note on its homepage.

Perhaps more importantly, the bill had many wondering whether the controls put in place by this legislation bordered on censorship.

"In the U.S., our legal system maintains that the burden of proof is on the accuser, and that people are innocent until proven guilty," the blog site Wordpress recently posted in a message to its users. "This tenet seems to be on the chopping block when it comes to the web if these bills pass, as companies could shut down sites based on accusation alone."

Among Boise's community of musicians, filmmakers and producers, artists have much to say on the subject. If the points they raise are any indication, the exhaustive debate on the challenges and issues surrounding intellectual property rights will continue to rage.

Neither of Idaho's representatives are members of the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill was waiting further action, but both spoke to BW about the bill before it was shelved.

Rep. Raul Labrador expressed his concerns with SOPA in an email to Boise Weekly: "While piracy is an international problem that stifles creativity and impedes economic growth, the implementation of SOPA would have created serious problems of its own," Labrador said. "I am pleased that the Judiciary Committee has scaled back its efforts to pass this bill and remain hopeful that we can craft a bill that protects intellectual property, as well as the open and entrepreneurial nature of the Internet itself."

According to Nikki Watts, Rep. Mike Simpson's communications director, his office was still reviewing the legislation and did not take a position before it died in committee.

SOPA's counterpart in the Senate, known as PIPA, was co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Risch. His office said that when it was introduced and at the following hearing there was no opposition. Later, after some in the Internet community began to express concerns about some of the provisions, Risch decided to re-examine the bill.

"Online piracy is a very, very serious problem," Risch said in a statement. "Recently, concerns have been raised about the proposed legislation that warrant another look at the bill. I am willing to take more time to re-examine the bill to see if those issues have merit, and if so, what changes can be made to resolve those concerns."

SOPA and PIPA's big-name supporters included Comcast/NBC Universal, Viacom and Capitol Records. Its opponents and critics included Discover, AOL, Facebook and Google. Supporters were quick to point out that the bill targeted "rogue sites," those outside the reach of U.S. law. Its critics said the bill had widespread negative implications rooted in the restriction of online access.

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