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 Wikimedia, eBay, 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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