On Jan. 18, 10,000 websites took part in what has been described as the “largest online protest in history.” High-traffic websites such as Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist participated in an anti-censorship protest against two bills pending sanction in US congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
Clay Shirky, author and arts professor at New York University, recently discussed the downside of SOPA in a TED talk. He claims that the difference between SOPA/PIPA and previous media censorship laws is that SOPA and PIPA allow the government to access any information content in the world and censor it in the name of defending private intellectual property.
The legislation works by removing links to online addresses from user lists, directories, and search engines. The government will be able to identify sites that are apparently infringing on copyright laws and then remove them from the domain name system. This system translates human readable names into the kinds of numerical addresses machines can read. If the names are removed, people will not be able to access the sites unless they know the numerical domain address.
This is a provision that has been criticized by scholars and activists interested in freedom of speech rights such as those protected in the US under the First Amendment. As a result of the protest even the bills’ authors in Congress are now publicly second-guessing the provision.
According to Shirky, the controversial issue is the “policing layer around the act.” He says that in effect the bills are meant to “raise the cost of copyright compliance,” meaning that companies will be unable to afford to stay in the business.
If SOPA and PIPA are passed, social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube would have to invest a massive amount of funds into a program whereby they could police their own sites.
Tied to the anti-copyright infringement initiative of SOPA are a host of orbital provisions that threaten web surfers’ autonomy. An example of this is the anti-circumvention provision, which allows the government to flag sites that provide information about getting around the Bills’ censorship system. In this sense even trying to legally outmanoeuvre the legislation is criminalized.
The most ominous provision tied to the Bill is the “vigilante” provision. This stipulation offers immunity to service providers who block “suspicious” users and websites without any legal oversight. They would act as agents for corporations to create blacklists of sites and individuals.
Furthermore, corporations can use any false copyright accusations to crush budding competitors. It creates a system in which no legal oversight is needed because we keep each other under surveillance.
French social theorist Michael Foucault compared modern society to Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon.” This was an architectural surveillance plan for prisons in the late eighteenth century. In the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen. Because the surveyor is unseen, it is hoped that the prisoners behave at all times due to the constant fear of being watched. This causes them to self-police in a state of paranoia.
Foucault claims this type of system is similar to modern society because we all perform a policing role, surveying each other. The difference is that we act the roles of both observer and observed; thus by participating as both prison guard and prisoner, we give panoptic surveillance its power.
This system of surveillance is similar to what the vigilante provision will institute.
Websites will point the finger at others to divert the punitive glare of the law, turning the Internet into a cyber prison. In such a prison, free speech will be policed by the virtual prisoners themselves. Self-censorship will prevail so that Internet users are not silenced by other users or the government.
SOPA and PIPA will harm individuals more than website companies because, as Shirky explains, “the biggest producers of content on the Internet are not Google and Yahoo, they are us. We are the people getting policed. Because in the end the real threat to the enactment of PIPA and SOPA is our ability to share things with one another.”
Isn’t sharing and the democratic spread of information the whole point of the Internet?
Wikipedia’s mission statement is, “to empower and engage people to document the sum of all human knowledge, and to make it available to all humanity, in perpetuity.” It is no surprise that the blockage of Wikipedia caused an uproar. One student, Dean Tsatouhas, upset at not being able to access the wealth of information on Jan. 18, tweeted, “Why can’t I use Wikipedia? It’s blacked out! This can’t be allowed!” Another tweeted, “So they are trying to shut down #wikipedia?
How am I supposed to do homework? *Signs petition to stop it.*” This is exactly the reaction these websites sought.
During the protest Wikipedia’s homepage featured a redirect link that sent web surfers to a page containing information about the reason for the blackout. The page included information about SOPA and PIPA, cited reasons for why they should not be passed, and also contained information about how people can contact representatives to express their disapproval.
The blackout was apparently a success. Wikipedia reported days after the blackout that the redirect link was accessed over 162 million times during the 24 hour period. It reported that over 8 million people researched the contact information of their elected representative using the “Congress Lookup” Wikipedia tool. That same week SOPA was effectively deferred by Congress.
Although this bill is supposedly shelved for the time being, it is a global issue. The Internet is international. Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor of Internet and e-commerce law, warns that the copyright reform legislation of Bill C-11 could allow Canada to become “a prime target for SOPA-style rules.” Bill C-11 would affect what Canadian consumers can do with media that they have bought, making it illegal, for instance, to break the digital lock on a CD, DVD, or smartphone.
In addition, Bill-C51 - expected to be included under the new Omnibus Crime Bill - would effectively turn Internet service providers and search engines into gatekeepers of the Internet, making it mandatory for them to monitor and store a user’s searches and communication. In tandem Bills C-11 and C-51 might be understood as Canadian versions of SOPA.
Shirky supports this view. The stalling of SOPA and PIPA are not the end of attempts to regulate information flow on the Internet. “Get ready,” he warns, “because more is coming.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 4, No. 5 (Feb. 2012).