By Norman Cahn, staff writer
SOPA. PIPA. To many these acronyms belong in George Orwell’s 1984. The bills, designed to counter online trading of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods, would prohibit ad agencies from conducting business with said websites, bar search engines from providing links to these sites, and encourage court orders to Internet service providers to ban access to the infringing material.
Perhaps most terrifying to Internet voices is the second section of the bill, in which penalties are expanded to unlicensed streaming of copyrighted material. Contributors to user-content generated websites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter would face prosecution for uploading illegal material. While this may seem to be a beacon of hope for “lolcat”-haters nationwide, it would be lethal to something as innocent as a parent filming their child singing the latest (copyrighted) Justin Bieber song. CalTV Executive Director Kevin Cohen expressed concern over the potential for this media war. Cohen claims, “YouTube is created by its users and it is nearly impossible to control all of the content uploaded to the site…[They] would be hard pressed to keep out all illegally procured content. Without the ability to gate-keep, YouTube would probably be outlawed.”
While Cohen’s vision may be a worst-case scenario, it is actually not all that far from reality. The legislation, which would compel user-content sites to monitor their own material, would impose massive liability costs to numerous Internet companies. Jason Schultz, Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law, fears, “If the government or private copyright owners can threaten to remove you from the DNS (Domain Name System) directory or cut off your payment systems at any moment merely by positing that you encourage copyright infringement, then few VC’s (Venture Capitalists) and other investors will want to risk their money on new internet ventures.”
With virtually every website that provides outbound links and user-content at risk of being shut down, Internet startups would suffer considerably, unable to obtain the necessary funds to get off the ground. In an ad posted in the New York Times, Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and eBay voiced this message to Congress and the public, claiming they were “concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation.”
Many compare the bills’ stipulations to Internet restriction methods practiced in China and Iran. Currently, the State Department helps fund organizations that make software that maneuvers around foreign censorship to provide democratic activism a boost. Ironically enough, since many such sites provide downloadable copyrighted material, they too would be threatened by the legislation. Tor, a program used to mask users’ IP addresses that was influential during the Egypt protests, is one such example, as copyright holders would target it. The highly oiled gears of Internet protest may themselves be threatened, as opinionated individuals become unable to voice their opinions using Tor, YouTube, or other such interfaces.
The Internet has expanded the bounds of political and entertainment media in ways that its creators could hardly have foreseen. While the threat of SOPA and PIPA has subsided for the time being, web users must keep a vigilant eye out for future restrictions that bear a resemblance to the bills. As the nation’s close brush with internet censorship revealed, poorly designed controls would irreparably damage online entertainment as we know it.