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Would The House Online Anti-Piracy Bill Lead to Internet Censorship?

"...subject online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk."

  • The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced as a House bill (similar to the Protect IP Act introduced in the Senate earlier this year) to protect intellectual property from "rouge" websites; it's especially at foreign websites.
  • The Bill is supported by groups like Hollywood and drug companies, while several others like Google, eBay, AOL and more oppose the bill for fear of censorship and hindered online innovation.
  • Social media sites where users may be sharing pirated material could be shut down if this bill became law.
  • The House Judiciary Committee heard a panel of six stakeholders today -- five in favor of the bill and one against.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee had its first hearing for the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, which would give law enforcement the ability to remove websites deemed as infringing on copywrite laws and protect against counterfeit goods. Although this sounds like something everyone can agree on, with the way the bill's current language, opposition worries over broader enforcement and infringement of freedom of speech, even dubbing today "American Censorship Day."

American Censorship, the group sponsoring American Censorship Day, says on its website if the bill were to become law in its current form, sites like Tumblr and Facebook would be shut down. The infographic below details how American Censorship sees the bill affecting online innovation.

Depending on what side you're on, you either see this act as protecting intellectual property and therefore people's livelihoods, or you see it as Internet censorship hindering the potential for entrepreneurship. Hollywood and pharmaceutical companies support the bill as their movies are illegally downloaded and products copied by online companies to name a few examples.

Last month, Ars Technica painted this picture showing opposition's sentiment for how the bill could be abused:

Imagine a world in which any intellectual property holder can, without ever appearing before a judge or setting foot in a courtroom, shut down any website's online advertising programs and block access to credit card payments. The credit card processors and the advertising networks would be required to take quick action against the named website; only the filing of a “counter notification” by the website could get service restored.

[...]

Calling its plan a “market-based system to protect US customers and prevent US funding of sites dedicated to theft of US property,” the new bill gives broad powers to private actors. Any holder of intellectual property rights could simply send a letter to ad network operators like Google and to payment processors like MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, demanding these companies cut off access to any site the IP holder names as an infringer.

[...]

The scheme is largely targeted at foreign websites which do not recognize US law, and which therefore will often refuse to comply with takedown requests. But the potential for abuse—even inadvertent abuse—here is astonishing, given the terrifically outsized stick with which content owners can now beat on suspected infringers.

CNET reports some of the dialogue from this morning's hearing:

It's "beyond troubling to hear hyperbolic charges that this bill will open the floodgates to government censorship," Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, said during a House Judiciary committee hearing this morning.

Claiming that the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, will transform the United States into "a repressive regime belittles the circumstances under which true victims of tyrannical governments actually live," said Watt, a SOPA sponsor.

[...]

Rep. Lofgren from California said during this morning's hearing that it was a mistake for SOPA's backers to dismiss criticism from people and companies who would be affected by it.

"It hasn't generally been the policy of this committee to dismiss the views of the industries that we're going to regulate," Lofgren said. "I understand why cosponsors of this legislation aren't happy about widespread criticism of this bill," but attacking the messenger isn't the answer.

Lofgren went as far to say that the hearing was unfairly weighted in favor of the bill, as five of the six person panel testifying before the committee supported the bill.

The bill was introduced to the House on October 26 and expounds on the controversial Protect IP Act, which is the Senate version introduced in May of this year. Supporters of the bill include union leaders, Hollywood, retailers and the law enforcement officials, according to the Washington Post. While those against include Google, Facebook, eBay, AOL, Verizon, Mozilla and a slew of Internet freedom groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, Free Software Foundation and Public Knowledge.

Here's an explanation of how Protect IP (and subsequently SOPA) would work from the perspective of Fight for the Future, a group opposing the bill:

David Sohn, Senior Policy Counsel of Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a press release today that the bill would "subject online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk."

"Fighting large-scale infringement is an important goal," Sohn said. "But SOPA would do far too much collateral damage to innovation, online expression, and privacy. Congress needs to listen to the full range of stakeholders and seriously rethink how it should address the problem of online infringement."

Several groups opposed to the bill took out ads in major news papers and even censored themselves with HTML code that put a black bar over their website's home page name and when clicked information about the bill popped up.

The only opposition on the panel that spoke today, Google's copyright counsel Katherine Oyama, suggested more acceptable attempt of the law to control piracy would be to cut off funding to those sites as a way to shut them down.

One last thing…
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