We Don’t Need to Censor the Internet: Tech Community Protests SOPA

When the House held a hearing about a controversial bill, the proposed Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) act — which would give the US Justice Department new powers to clamp down on websites that host material with disputed copyrights — internet giants including Wikipedia owner WikimediaeBay, Google and Twitter protested strongly. According to the tech companies, the bill would create an “internet blacklist” that would promote censorship, eliminate jobs and squash freedom of speech as SOPA gives the US Justice Department the right to police websites both in the US and aboard that host material whose copyright is disputed. Even more, the US could shut down websites and also go after the companies that support them technically or through payment systems, such as Paypal.

The Senate has also introduced a version of the legislation, the Protect IP Act and the two bills have backing from powerful, and well-financed, sources: The United States Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild. But the tech community is protesting as such legislation would mean that sites YouTube would have to vet all content before allowing it to be posted online. Currently, if YouTube and other sites are found to have such copyrighted content without permission, they are told to take it down. The legislation would require that sites first check for such content and, if they do not, US authorities could simply block the website.

At today’s House hearing, Google’s policy council, Kathryn Oyama– who was the only witness against the legislation at the hearing — stated that SOPA “sets a precedent in favor of Internet censorship and could jeopardize our nation’s cybersecurity,” not to mention the tech industry’s innovation and the creation of jobs.

AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Zynga all took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest the online piracy bills:

“We support the bills’ stated goals – providing additional enforcement tools to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement or counterfeiting. Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding US internet and technology companies to new and uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites.”

Rebecca McKinnon, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a founder of Global Voices Online, explains how SOPA and the Senate piracy bill could hurt political and civil rights. 

McKinnon writes in a New York Times op-ed:

Abuses under existing American law serve as troubling predictors for the kinds of abuse by private actors that the House bill would make possible. Take, for example, the cease-and-desist letters that Diebold, a maker of voting machines, sent in 2003, demanding that Internet service providers shut down Web sites that had published internal company e-mails about problems with the company’s voting machines. The letter cited copyright violations, and most of the service providers took down the content without question, despite the strong case to be made that the material was speech protected under the First Amendment.

Under SOPA, the burden of proof would be on a website operator to show that a  site was not being used for copyright infringement. In the case of user-generated sites like YouTube, the effect would simply be “chilling.” The changes proposed by the two piracy bills could seriously threaten free speech in ways that, while stopping short of the kinds of censorship of political and religious speech imposed by China via its Great Firewall, are a step in such a direction.

YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have played an important role in political movements from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. At present, social networking services are protected by a “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grants Web sites immunity from prosecution as long as they act in good faith to take down infringing content as soon as rights-holders point it out to them. The House bill would destroy that immunity, putting the onus on YouTube to vet videos in advance or risk legal action. It would put Twitter in a similar position to that of its Chinese cousin, Weibo, which reportedly employs around 1,000 people to monitor and censor user content and keep the company in good standing with authorities.

Given the current low level of public trust in government and corporations, why, McKinnon asks, create new legal mechanisms that provide “new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech”? Of course American intellectual property must be protected, but SOPA and the Senate’s Protect IP Act are in danger of  putting a muzzle on development and innovation, as well as on the free expression of speech on the internet. Does the US want to be known as a country that censors the internet?

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Photo by antonella.beccaria

55 comments

Dorie Thompson
Dorie Thompson4 years ago

I oppose SOPA & PIPA! Please do not approve this legislation that suppresses our freedom of information.

Elissa H.
Elissa H.4 years ago

The government controlls everything els in our lives why give them this??? Dont let them.

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M.4 years ago

No to Censorship! What next... a dictatorship?

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M.4 years ago

No to Censorship! We have to watch out for dictators.
I agree that there are some things that get on the internet that are terrible and should not be there, but it is up to us to report these kinds of things and make sure they are removed, especially for young peoples sake.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin4 years ago

China, North Korea, Iran and Belarus are among countries that block access to the Internet and the sharing of free information. If we allow SOPA and PIPA to become laws, we would in an instant reduce the freedoms all over the world. Those two suggestions and possible laws, would not just infringe on Americans right to the Internet. It will also blackout large parts of Internet avalable information for the rest of the world. Imagine not being able to check stuff on Wikipedia and Google and not listening to music and videoclips on YouTube, get information about events and attacks on people, because somewhere on the site there may be a link to something suspected of being copyrighted material. Yes, a suspicion is enough for the accusers to get the site closed down! What will we then have? An Internet for the Governments to design and we all know what that mean. Do whatever you can to protest against these suggestions for a censorstricken Internet. Contact your Governments, ministers, media, anyone with the possibility of sqaushing this push towards a 1984-society! Sign petitions, create your own, make a lot of noise!

Nicole Bergeron
Nicole Bergeron4 years ago

Censorship will not stop piracy, it will not stop illegal videos and content, and download of music illegally, it will not stop people from view what they want when they want. They will find ways around it, and in doing so to find ways around for their illegal activity they will show it to those who wish for legal activity who will wind up doing illegal activity just to get something that is legal but the website is banned. It is an endless cycle. Censorship WILL create more criminals then it will block. NO CENSORSHIP!

Vicky K.
Vicky K.4 years ago

Whatever happened to FREEDOM of SPEECH?

Ben Oscarsito
Ben Oscarsito4 years ago

Censorship? -NO! NO!! NO!!!

Nicola Thomasson
Nicola Thomasson4 years ago

No to censorship!

I get that some things are illegal, like child porn, animal torture videos etc., but otherwise free speech is free speech.

Michael Z.
Michael Z.4 years ago

My family did not travel across the Pacific Ocean, from China, to see censorship in America.