The fight against potential internet censorship will reach a milestone this evening (AEST) when some of the most popular destinations on the web – including the English language version of Wikipedia – will “go dark” to protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
Social news website reddit will also join the blackout. Many other sites – including Google, blogging platform WordPress and Firefox developers, Mozilla – have also joined the so-called “SOPA Strike”.
SOPA and PIPA were being considered by the US Congress as a means of combating copyright infringement of movies, music and books. As argued in a previous article on The Conversation, those bills have the potential to damage the technical foundations of the internet and damage free-speech online.
At the time that article was published, SOPA and PIPA had support from both sides of US politics and it was thought their passage was all but assured. But more recently a rag-tag coalition of internet companies, free speech advocates and ordinary users has continued a fierce campaign (online and offline) to prevent the bills from getting passed:
- On November 15, representatives from nine of the biggest Internet companies – including Google, Facebook, eBay and AOL – sent a joint letter to the US Congress outlining their opposition to SOPA and PIPA.
- On November 16, several sites, including blogging platform Tumblr, Mozilla, group blog BoingBoing and reddit designated the day as “American Censorship Day”.
- In the US, reddit users organised several initiatives to reach out to representatives in the Congress and convey their concerns about the bills.
- Several venture capitalists sent a joint letter outlining how SOPA and PIPA would lead them to stop investing in the booming tech sector.
- Two Canadian students released a smartphone app called “Boycott SOPA” that, upon reading a product’s barcode, informed the customer whether the product was made by a company that supported SOPA.
The protests mentioned above bore fruit.
- Several legislators announced their opposition to SOPA in the US House of Representatives and moved several amendments to blunt some of its provisions (though all of these motions were defeated).
- A group of legislators proposed an alternate bill called the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act that aimed to be more selective while targeting copyright infringement.
- Under pressure, the sponsors of both SOPA and PIPA dropped a key measure that required the blacklisting of sites found to promote infringement. (Such sites would be blacklisted by blocking their entries from the internet’s Domain Name Service.)
- The White House responded to an online petition with a statement that seemed to indicate its opposition to measures proposed in these bills.
- And then, just yesterday SOPA itself was “shelved” until a consensus could be found on the measures proposed in the bill. However, confusion remains as its lead sponsor has indicated that the bill will be taken up for debate in February
But while the battle over SOPA been in progress for several months now, the imminent “blackouts” are sure to be a defining moment.
It’s hoped these blackouts will highlight the egregious nature of the measures proposed in the bill, and the potential for them to be used in censoring legitimate content online.
But despite the successful protests, the government backdowns and the proposed blackouts, the fight against SOPA and PIPA is not yet over. SOPA is still being considered in the Committee and the US Senate Majority Leader has scheduled a vote on PIPA on January 24.
Ultimately, if the bills are stopped, it will be a victory for grassroots democracy. At present, the result is still far from certain.
Dr Srikumar Venugopal is a Lecturer with the School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW.
This opinion first appeared in The Conversation.