Over the past month, battle lines have been drawn over a proposed new law in the US called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
If passed, it will strengthen the American Justice Department’s power to go after websites that host disputed copyright material and could make sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit liable for violations.
To do this, SOPA would create a blacklist of websites that infringe on copyrights. Anyone that alleges that a site is unlawfully publishing their copyrighted content could, with a judge’s signature, demand that ad networks and companies like PayPal and Visa stop doing business with such sites. It would also require internet service providers to block US citizens from visiting these websites.
Last Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee met to debate changes to SOPA, and everyone from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to Ariana Huffington, Jimmy Wales and Google’s Eric Schmidt have spoken up to dispute its validity. Both sides have stepped up their activity, pulling in high-profiles lobbyists, celebrities, and taking out full page adverts in the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Now the most obvious point to make first of all, is that this is unlikely to work from a logistics perspective - a point echoed by almost everyone we spoke to when writing this piece.
Joel Hruska points out quite sensibly on ExtremeTech that filtering web traffic to pick out those from the US and block them from accessing certain websites using DNS is a huge task.
Consider airport security before and after 9/11. Before 9/11, airport security was little more than a brief stop. Now, it takes long enough that airports across the country have installed long queues to fit a sufficient number of people into a space that once held just a fraction of their number at any given time. This continues to be the case, despite a massive increase in the number of security personnel deployed at the terminal for screening purposes."
Then of course there's the issue of actually maintaining the blacklist. Even just from a logistical perspective, how is this local policing of global properties going to be implemented?
Vindicia CEO Gene Hoffman predicts that SOPA’s aim is to turn the US into the world's online copyright police.
SOPA would allow the US to theoretically police copyright across the world, so that the US government could take action against websites anywhere if they are accessed by US consumers. This level of colonialisation runs counter to the principles of the world wide web, that have made it a successful business phenomenon. Now, if Facebook, YouTube or any other website is holding copyright material without permission, they are told to take it down. SOPA would make it possible for the US to block the website. This would kill smaller firms and put off investors from financing new companies."
Some of those supporting this bill are doing it because they believe that they should be able to make money from the content they invest in creating, which seems perfectly reasonble. But SOPA itself is the result of old school, corporate, iron fist thinking. It shows a lack of creativity in thinking, and an unwillingness to evolve.
But what's more, if people really want to download or stream content, they will reroute around any restrictions put in place by SOPA - either by proxies or mirrors - as outlined to us by Paul Clarke, who advises on digital strategy for the UK public sector. Quite apart from the fact that study after study shows that those who download actually spend more on media, games and entertainment in the long run.
However, the big record labels and media companies hold serious weight in Washington, which is reflected in the fact that this bill is even being considered – let alone potentially passed. So though SOPA might seem antiquated, it's not to be dismissed. Activist group Anonymous certainly doesn't think so, and has issued a 'call to arms' in preparation for what looks like a response.
In terms of affecting the UK, there’s nothing much to see here other than the consequential outage of any US sites downed.
European Parliament has called for SOPA to be abandoned, and more than 60 civil and human rights organisations wrote a letter to Congress calling for its rejection. The letter argues that the act is as unacceptable to the international community as it would be if a foreign country were to impose similar measures on the United States.
While the EU's digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has said, “Citizens increasingly hear the word copyright and hate what is behind it. Many see the current system as a tool to punish and withhold, not a tool to recognise and reward.”