Imagine a world without free knowledge. This was the message that awaited the millions of people who tried to log in to the hugely popular online reference site Wikipedia on Jan. 18. Viewers soon found that access was restricted to the site for an entire 24-hour period, the reason being that Wikipedia, along with hundreds of other popular sites including Google and Tumblr, was participating in what was soon to be called the largest online protest in history. The target of this protest was the government’s recent proposition of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which if carried out would have allowed corporations to shut down websites that distribute any form of copyrighted material. All protesting sites (excluding Google) completely shut themselves down, giving the public a taste of what the effects of these two acts might be.
Of course such censorious legislation has been proposed in the past, but without much effect. Bills like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 sought to enforce the rules of copyright infringement on the Internet, but were proven to be easily circumvented by Internet pirates. SOPA and PIPA, on the other hand, take a much more aggressive approach, allowing corporations to demand government intervention without first seeking court orders and due process. The acts would also entail harsher penalties for pirates, including stiff fines and jail time.
In effect, this would allow enormous entertainment corporations like News Corp, Sony and Time Warner to shut down any sites they accuse of violating copyright terms.
Due to the massive number of protestors mentioned above and President Obama’s opposition, both bills have been postponed indefinitely. But in no way does this mean that the legislation is gone for good, and the question of what would happen to the entertainment industry if both bills pass still remains.
Hollywood lobbied hard for SOPA and PIPA. From the movie studios’ perspective, the bills would simply ensure that earnings went to the right people. For example, the Motion Picture Association of America has been cheated out of billions in revenue due to the enormous number of pirated films available on the Internet.
In addition, music that is illegally downloaded robs musicians of money that should rightfully be theirs. Lawful compensation, therefore, would be one of the key policies implemented by the SOPA and PIPA bills, and would most likely be considered a reasonable undertaking to the average working-class citizen.
However, the fact remains that a substantial portion of the population still opposes SOPA and PIPA despite the studios intellectual property claims. The reason for this opposition is that the two bills would prohibit much more than just illegal downloading of film or music. In fact, if the bills were put into action, web-masters would become responsible for anything that is posted on their site’s forums. Bloggers would even be held accountable for content posted in comments. The use of company logos, even those found on a Google Image search, could lead to legal intervention if the company deemed it a form of copyright infringement.
Perhaps some of the most radical changes would occur on sites like YouTube. If SOPA and PIPA were passed, remixed songs, television episodes, and game replays could be criminalized and those responsible for unauthorized redistribution could be prosecuted. In order to avoid liability, video sharing sites would have to manually review the content of each submission before making them publicly viewable, negating the possibility of immediate uploads.
This is obviously a complicated issue. While the bills would allow traditional entertainment moguls to exist and thrive in a digital world, the considerable cons are the potential for censorship and sending online creativity into a steep nosedive.
The bills have been struck down for now, America is holding its breath, and the Internet continues to be the largest source of media and information in history. But if similar bills are put into effect, they would fundamentally alter the face of the internet. We may have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to live in a world where what goes online is controlled.