Several websites around the world have gone into blackout in protest over two copyright bills due to pass the United States that could severely curtail the free flow of information on the internet.
Several websites around the world have gone into blackout in protest over two copyright bills due to pass through the United States congress and senate that could severely curtail individual liberties for anyone using the internet.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bills have provoked protest throughout the US, as copyright holders such as movie and TV studios, record companies and video game makers want to block access to international websites that use copyright material, including any second or third party links.
Human history’s largest encyclopedia, Wikipedia, held a debate amongst its contributors last week, and voted to blackout the site for 24 hour starting today (click here). Instead of the usual articles, visitors are greeted by a message about the decision to black out its English-language Web page for the day.
"Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge," it reads.
"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."
Wikipedia has left open a backdoor for emergencies it says, whereby users can gain access by switching off Java. The site remains accessible by smartphone.
Technology Magazine Wired, censored its entire front page.
Amateur news sharing websites Boing Boing and Reddit (US readers only) have also gone dark, and Google US has also blacked out its logo in protest (for non-US readers, click here). Twitter announced it was not participating in the protest, as the legislation is region specific.
Needless to say, these bills are impossible. Much like similar legislation attempted around the world over the past 15 years, it is so riddled with holes, misnomers and fundamental misunderstandings of technology, that the vague wordings and loopholes could lead to interpretations that are very dangerous to international civil liberties.
Copyright holders would be able to complain to police and get websites shut down. Search engines and other providers would be forced to police themselves and block rogue sites when ordered to do so by a judge. Sites could be punished for hosting or linking to pirated content, while Internet companies are worried about their liabilities over users actions.
A Facebook or Wikipedia link to any site that has this copyrighted material could see the site held liable. How Facebook would police the links of its 800 million users is anyone’s guess. For Google and Wikipedia (which is run on donations) the problem is even larger.
The whitehouse has already (vaguely) backed off on the bill, stating that "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet." The bill remains on the books.
A more detailed discussion can be read here at the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
Ostensibly, this bill is targeted at the phenomenally successful PirateBay website. Based in Sweden (and now a political party), it hosts torrents to copyrighted material for free, and has thumbed its nose repeatedly at any foreign attempts to shut it down (it even has its own legal letters section). The website has also blacked out its front page.
The bill’s wording is so loose it could be applied to any use of copyright that has not received permission from the copyright holder.This could theoretically be a DJ remixing music and posting it online, a movie mash-up video posted on Youtube, or even a video tutorial of how to use Microsoft Office. This would see Youtube fined or blocked, rather than the individual responsible (we won’t get into the debate on fair-use here, as it differs worldwide).
Alongside an encroachment on civil liberties, it will also stifle innovation. Any of these companies that simply doesn’t like what a small business or website is doing with its material will be able to, at the very least, wrap them up in court for years, which will cause the little man to lose out.