If you’ve been tuning in to the news over the past few weeks (or noticed a few of your favourite websites were out for the count) you’ll have heard that the two controversial US online piracy bills have been shelved (for now, at least) and the millions of people protesting against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) have been heard. While the action is happening in the US, let’s take a look at the online piracy debate and what it means for Australia.
So what’s the deal with SOPA and PIPA?
SOPA and PIPA are two pieces of legislation aimed at snuffing out online piracy. PIPA is essentially a rewrite of a bill that was already dismissed in 2010. SOPA is a new one, but both have a similar message:
International websites seen to be infringing a US copyright owners intellectual property rights, as well as those that “engage in”, “enable” or “facilitate” infringing websites, could find themselves blacklisted and their entire domain shut down.
Check out this video for an in depth explanation on how SOPA and PIPA work.
Why the bills don’t work
Let’s say your cousin posts a link on Facebook to an Australian-based online store that seems legit, but secretly sells counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags. According to a strict interpretation of the proposed legislations, the online store could be blocked and its owners could face criminal charges in the US, without judicial review in Australia.
Meanwhile, Facebook could be responsible for “enabling” or “facilitating the activities” of the infringing site. If a US court official upheld the complaint, the entire facebook.com domain could be disabled. Similarly, domains like Paypal or Amazon could be targeted if they provide their payment processing services to the infringing website and Google could be targeted for linking to it in search results. It’s a slippery slope.
Under current legislation (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), Facebook could be required to “take down” the offending content. But if SOPA and PIPA were to be passed, the consequences for infringement could cripple some of our biggest online spaces.
The laws’ passage seemed a certainty until two weeks ago, when the White House blogged that President Obama wouldn’t “support measures that encourage censorship or disrupt the structure of the Internet”. Last week, private citizens of the Internet showed their opposition to censorship by blacking out sections of their sites. Among their ranks were some of the world’s biggest web properties, including Google, Reddit and Wikipedia (shocking millions of affected students world-wide who had to turn elsewhere for research!)
Wikipedia’s message was seen by 162 million people and Google’s “End Piracy, Not Liberty” campaign saw more than 7 million Americans sign an online petition against SOPA and PIPA. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, stated that “we can’t let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the Internet’s development” in a Facebook status update that attracted more than 200,000 ‘Likes’ within the hour.
What does it mean for us?
While these two bills are on the backburner in the US, the international debate on online piracy is still heating up. You might be familiar with SOPA and, to a lesser extent, PIPA, but have you heard of the Anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA)? Australia signed onto ACTA in September last year, becoming one of a handful of countries around the world to do so. The Greens and Pirate Parties have since highlighted the potential for Australia to be roped into any future US legislation of the SOPA/PIPA variety as part of the treaty which aims to set international guidelines on pirated goods. Check out this video to learn more about the ACTA debate.
In today’s online environment where we freely share our opinions, links and photos on websites run by user-generated content, these proposed laws could bring about massive change to our beloved Internet. For the moment it seems the efforts of the public are keeping the laws at bay, but it’s clear the entertainment industry is pulling out all of the stops to protect their assets. We’ve certainly not seen the end of the online piracy battle.
What happens now?
Voting on SOPA and PIPA has been postponed for the time being, but the bills’ advocates have already flagged their return once “the legitimate issues raised by many about this bill (have been) resolved”.
For now though, the Internet community at large agree on three things:
1. Piracy sucks;
2. The digital revolution is bringing about exciting opportunities and plenty of challenges;
3. But let’s not ruin a good thing with “poorly thought-out laws” – protecting intellectual property and encouraging digital distribution don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The online community’s voice resonate with hope that any proposed solution can fight copyright theft while still preserving the best qualities of the Internet – encouraging creativity, sharing and innovation, the ability to start new businesses from nothing, improving the status quo and connecting with millions of people all around the world.