SOPA under fire from all sides

Wikipedia, the world’s fifth most visited website, has today replaced its English language pages with a holding page in protest against controversial anti piracy legislation currently making its way through the US Congress.

For 24 hours, Wickipedia’s global English-language pages have been replaced by a landing page explaining the issues surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). If passed, the legislation could “fatally damage the free and open Internet”, it said.

"This is an extraordinary action for our community to take,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. “And while we regret having to prevent the world from having access to Wikipedia for even a second, we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world."

The protest klaxon against the legislation has been taken up by hundreds of sites, from the social bookmarking site Reddit, to Craiglist, and even Google, while not actually in shut down, has posted a link on its main US search page highlighting its opposition.

The legislation in question is designed to attack the very real problem of content piracy, blocking access to non-US websites that host unlicensed content, cutting them off from search engines and payment processes. Without even touching on whether this is the correct way to deal with the problem, the far reaching nature of the bill has sparked fierce debate between web users, internet companies and media organisations.

Critics accuse legislators in dramatic fashion of far exceeding the necessary steps. If the US government begins deciding which websites users are allowed to see, they say, what we are allowed to click on, aren’t we sleepwalking into a system of internet censorship similar to China, choking free speech and eroding our brave new world of internet freedom?  

Amid the hyperbole there are some very genuine concerns. The bill would impose restrictions on US companies that link to or sell online ads to suspected content pirates; it would outlaw payment processing and require that these sites not be shown in search engine results. The scope of culpability could mean that website owners might find themselves facing costly legal bills because of a single link on their site. The added costs of having to police vast websites full of user generated content would, say tech companies, prove prohibitive.

As public sentiment swung against the Bill in recent weeks, possibly the most worrying aspect of the legislation, provisions known as DNS-blocking, which would require internet service providers to block US users access to some ‘rogue’ websites, are now likely to be dropped.

And in a further blow to the bill’s supporters, the Obama administration finally waded into the debate this week, consoling both sides that while the problem of internet piracy was harming the US economy and required a “serious legislative response”, it would not support “legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet”.

As the flood of negative press around this legislation reaches chin-level and threatens to drown SOPA, key tech firms, some who had previously supported the bill (ahem... Microsoft!), have begun withdrawing support for it ‘as currently drafted’.

We’re back to the impasse, and it’s looking increasingly likely that legislators will be required to re-word or even completely re-write their bill. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and the army of free-internet protesters will not rest easy at this; the fact remains that piracy is a major problem which media owners and their lobbyists are determined to promote.

Is it time for a more innovative, collaborative solution?

Meanwhile, the Whitehouse has urged all stakeholders to come together and work on constructive solutions to the problem. Further insinuating that the current draft wouldn’t cut the mustard, it said: “the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders.”

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