Yesterday, thousands of Wikipedia users found themselves staring at a black page. "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge," the page read, followed by an explanation for the blackout: "Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."
Wikipedia was referring to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), currently being debated before the US House of Representatives, and its sister bill, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) before the Senate. The legislation is supported by the content industry, such as Hollywood and large record labels. Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, Yahoo! and other internet giants have criticised the legislation for giving the US government "the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran".
Does the legislation threaten free speech to such an extent that we will see Twitter transformed into Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging site that allegedly gets monitored by hundreds of employees? Will the new laws affect those of us living outside the United States? After all, the US government already has the ability to seize domestic sites that infringe copyright.
Once a website is accused of infringing copyright, the legislation allows the US government to force internet service providers to block access to the website, order search engines like Google to exclude the website from their database and bar internet advertising agencies from making payments to the website without a court order.
Under the legislation, a single website such as YouTube or wordpress.com could potentially be subject to such measures even if there were only a few videos or blog posts that infringed copyright. The big English language user-generated websites are hosted in the US — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube, for starters — and the legislation could mean that they introduce more stringent user policies such as close monitoring and pre-screening procedures. This in turn would affect the speed and freedom with which information is communicated.
Notable support for the legislation came from @rupertmurdoch, a heavyweight in the media and entertainment empire but a newbie on Twitter. He tweeted: "piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sell advts around them. No wonder pouring millions into lobbying". This incited a Twitter mob with pitchforks chasing after him. When the political support for the legislation dwindled, he blamed the user-generated community: "seems blogosphere has succeeded in terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed. Politicians all the same."
Wikipedia’s blackout protest seems to have been a success, with a number of Senators backing away from the legislation they sponsored and a handful in Congress changing their positions.
For Australian users, this does not end the possibility of more stringent online regulation. The High Court is currently deliberating the iiNet case, in which a number of movie and television studios argue that the internet service provider should be liable for copyright infringement because it "authorised" its users to share files. While a majority of the full Federal Court found that iiNet was not liable, it left open the possibility that internet service providers may be liable for copyright infringement. Depending on the High Court’s interpretation of copyright infringement, internet service providers in Australia may need to introduce more stringent user policies, including monitoring and blocking certain websites.
When audio and video cassettes were first introduced, recording and film studios saw them as threats to copyright until they embraced the potential of the technology to extend the shelf life of music and movies. Already some movie and music producers are turning online technologies to their own purposes, as evidenced by ads in official YouTube video clips or extended sales platform to websites such as iTunes.
Whatever the outcome of the SOPA and PIPA protests, the success of the content industry is likely to depend on their ability to engage with online citizens and user-generated sites. Accordingly, good internet regulation can’t just please the content industry — it has to take into account the millions of users who log on everyday.
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