Hands Off Our Internet: SOPA and PIPA Protest

By: Laura Patrick

By now you have probably heard about the infamous Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), its House of Representatives counterpart.  If not, then you missed one of the biggest and most effective Internet protests to hit history.  On January 18, 2012, a growing grass-roots movement aligned with some major online companies, including Wikipedia, Reddit, and Tumblr to launch a massive protest of SOPA and PIPA.  For now, the unprecedented protest seems to have worked.  In the wake of the anti-SOPA and PIPA movements, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed the scheduled vote on PIPA in the Senate, and the House shelved SOPA indefinitely.  Despite all the buzz surrounding the bills, many still don’t know what the bills were really about or the origin of the massive web-strike.  For those that may have missed the SOPA/PIPA circus or just want more information, here’s the run down on the bills, the protest, and how this movement may have changed politics forever.

What are PIPA and SOPA?

Both the PIPA and SOPA are proposed laws aimed at preventing online theft of intellectual property, including copying and sharing movies, music, and photography.  While both are aimed at combating piracy, SOPA has been considered a higher threat to the Internet and free speech because of its expansive nature.  PIPA, which was introduced last May by Senator Patrick Leahy, is the tamer of the two.

PIPA, unlike SOPA, is principally directed at stopping “pirate” websites that exist “primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating” infringement.  PIPA claims not to expand substantive trademark or copyright law, but does give the U.S. Attorney General authority to obtain a court order against foreign infringing websites and requires domain name system providers (and arguably any site that links to infringing content) to disable access to possibly infringing sites.  Additionally, PIPA would give copyright and trademark holders the ability to seek a court order enjoining advertisers from funding an infringing site and search engines from linking to them.

SOPA on the other hand, is a bit more drastic.  Like PIPA, SOPA allows the Attorney General and IP rights holders to seek a court order barring advertisers and “payment facilities” (such as PayPal) from providing funds to an infringing website. It also requires search engines to disable any links to any sites that may have infringing material. SOPA, however, goes even further than PIPA.  Under SOPA a “foreign infringing site” is any site that is “committing or facilitating” infringement and is not limited, like PIPA, to sites that have “no significant use other than” infringement. While the difference may not seem all that obvious, sites that link to even one site or blog containing infringing material could be considered “facilitating” infringement and risk financial ruin.  SOPA also has an additional provision making streaming protected online video a felony.

The Fight For Online Freedom

Supporters claimed that the bills would rid the intellectual property world of “rogue websites” and piracy.  Proponents of SOPA and PIPA were—not surprisingly—huge media and entertainment companies, such as The Motion Picture Association of America, The Screen Actors Guild, Sony, and Walt Disney, Co. These companies are understandably concerned about online piracy. But opponents of the bills argue that both create the potential for abuse and censorship of speech. As evidenced by the January 18 protest, millions of people agree that these bills are not an effective way to stop this illegal activity.  Piracy, like other foreign illegal activity, would continue to exist, while the bills would have an extensive chilling effect on speech in the U.S. and give the government the power to censor the web in ways similar to those used in China and Iran.

The Internet community’s biggest concern was abuse of power.  Both bills offered solace to websites that preemptively take down possibly infringing videos and links.  Sites like Tumblr and Google would be forced to remove content that may not actually be infringing for fear that their site would be shut down.  YouTube would be required to disable any video of someone singing a copyrighted song, and under SOPA the creator of the video could face felony charges.  SOPA and PIPA weren’t just a major threat to huge Internet companies, but also to the Internet community made up of everyday people.

While PIPA’s regulations initially sparked grumbling in the online community, SOPA’s far-reaching implications seemed to be the final straw.  Small Internet groups had been spreading their anti-PIPA/SOPA message for a few months.

It is no surprise that the protest against such Internet-crippling legislation would begin on the Internet itself. The first major move in the grass-roots campaign began with a video made by the organization Fight for the Future.  The video outlined what PIPA would do and why it was a threat to the Internet.  Since its creation, the video has received over 4 million views on YouTube and Vimeo and was the start of the anti-PIPA/SOPA movement.  By mid-November, word had spread and November 16, 2011, was declared American Censorship Day to commemorate the House Committee’s first hearing on SOPA.  That same day marked the beginning of the first direct action of a major web-based company when Tumblr blacked out it site for the day, and over a million people contacted Congress about the bill.

By mid-January, thousands of websites and their operators had joined the movement against the bill, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist, Twitter, and YouTube.  Even the White House spoke out against the bill on its blog, writing, “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

On January 18, 2012, hundreds of thousands of websites went black as part of the largest online protest in history.  Sites led by Wikipedia and Reddit blacked out their pages, while other sites showed their opposition with ribbons and links to anti-PIPA and SOPA resources.  Web giant Google displayed a black bar over its logo in protest and directed people to sign the petition against the legislation.  By the end of the day, 10 million people had signed the petition, and over 3 million people had contacted Congress in opposition.  That day alone, 13 Senators (five of which were co-sponsors) dropped their support of the bill.

In response to the online strike, the vote on PIPA was delayed and SOPA was put on hold indefinitely, showcasing the power of the online community.  The campaign seems to have worked for now, and the effectiveness of the protest brings to the forefront even bigger issues.  Up until now, we haven’t seen such a rapid mobilization of protest on the web, and the PIPA/SOPA protests could be the start of a revolution in the political world.  This protest illustrates that people are now capable of reaching out to their representatives and spreading a message faster than ever before.  For the moment, the Internet is safe, but the legislative process may never be the same again.

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