January 13, 2012

A dangerous act

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is misguided and Internet pioneers should speak out against it.

I was browsing Reddit, a popular social network, when I stumbled upon an article from digitaltrends.com discussing Congressman Lamar Smith and the controversial bill known as SOPA that he is currently trying to get passed. SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” deals with copyright regulation and piracy on the Internet, specifically calling for the government to have the explicit power to shut down foreign and domestic websites if American companies complain about piracy or copyright infringement. In other words, the United States Department of Justice would be able to disconnect Americans from sites such as reddit.com, Reporters Without Borders, and others if an American firm reports a single copyright infringement. Even large American companies like Google, Twitter, and Yahoo, which are connected to every legal and illegal corner of the Internet, are cognizant of the strongly worded legislation’s potentially massive implications.

Politicians, pundits, and Internet users alike have argued for SOPA’s legitimacy over the past few months, but not a single tech “pioneer” has appeared in a primetime interview or shown a public display of disapproval for the bill. Apart from Eric Schmidt, the relatively unknown CEO of Google, and a few others, the community of Internet pioneers has largely failed to speak out. Well-known figures such as Larry Page of Google and Jeff Bezos of Amazon have remained out of the public eye and have been completely silent on this issue. This is most curious, especially when one considers how dramatic the decrease in Internet usage could be and the subsequent effect this could have on their companies if SOPA is passed.

It’s possible that they are maintaining silence in hopes of retaining credibility by refusing to partake in public arguments with politicians, and they could well be planning a massive, coordinated public opposition in the near future. Another scenario is that these Internet giants actually forecast minimal losses in revenue if SOPA is passed, or even favorable market conditions in a more extreme scenario, but both of these seem unlikely. There are rumors of an ongoing conversation among Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, along with others, to discuss a coordinated Internet blackout to raise awareness about SOPA’s shortcomings. Still, this conversation remains a rumor. What is clear is that there’s growing public panic in the face of potentially fatal blows to what the Internet has accomplished over the past several years.

A subtle but meaningful feature of this conflict is the precedent it sets for future showdowns over private interests on the Internet. How “private” will the Internet ultimately become? Certainly it is not the same virtual world that existed as little as five years ago; even original YouTube videos with no copyrighted content now begin with an advertisement. Watching videos on the Internet has, in the blink of an eye, turned into television of a different form, irrelevant ads and all. It is difficult to identify the specific repercussions for freedom of expression on the Internet as we know it if SOPA passes, but the outcome will surely be of some consequence.

The general counsel of Wikipedia, the sixth most visited website on the Internet globally and in the United States, has released a comment containing the following: “The result [of the passage of SOPA] is that, under court order, Wikimedia would be tasked to review millions upon millions of sourced links, locate the links of the so-called ‘foreign infringing sites,’ and block them from our articles or other projects. It costs donors’ money and staff resources to undertake such a tremendous task, and it must be repeated every time a prosecutor delivers a court order from any federal judge in the United States on any new ‘foreign infringing site.’ Blocking links runs against our culture of open knowledge, especially when surgical solutions to fighting infringing material are available.”

If the worst is true, the Internet as a public space Americans love and enjoy could become a shadow of its former self. Perhaps it is time for Larry Page to emerge from his quiet Mountain View, CA office to help Washington understand the consequences of SOPA. It is one of my greatest hopes, as an American and as a human, that SOPA will not pass, or else we will have allowed the privatization and exploitation of one of humanity’s greatest achievements—the Internet.

 David Gaballa is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.