It is the day of protests against two US Congress bills, known as the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, which would, opponents claim censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the US.
So far, millions of internet users and entrepreneurs opposed SOPA and PIPA and on 18 January, many of the major websites, such as Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, eBay, Mozilla Corporation, Roblox, Reddit, Kaspersky Lab, the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as some human-rights organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch decided to either black out their pages or mark them with a protest note against SOPA and PIPA.
Wikipedia even decided to completely block access to its pages in English language for 24 hours to demonstrate what would it be like if the two bills were adopted and all information in internet were subject to discretionary control.
It was widely stipulated that both pieces of legislation contain potentially dangerous provisions that would violate the free speech online, internet security, and online innovation. The basic ratio legis for the so-called blacklist bills was protection against infringement of the intellectual property rights (IPRs) and copyrights.
However, in addition to going after websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement, SOPA would allow the (US) government to shut down sites that provide information that could help users circumvent the existing or established censorship mechanisms, constituting unconstitutional prior restraint against protected speech.
Ironically, not only that SOPA would create a legal atmosphere for online oppression similar to that in totalitarian regimes, but it would essentially outlaw production of new and use of the existing tools used by activists to circumvent censorship in countries like Iran and China, as well as those used by the Arab Spring activists to topple their tyrants.
Another provision in PIPA and SOPA bills that set off alarms in cyber community is the “vigilante” provision, which would grant broad immunity to service providers in case they block innocent users or block sites voluntarily with no judicial oversight. Basically, providers only need to act “in good faith” and based “on credible evidences”, without particular interpretation of what those may be, to ensure immunity.
Additionally, PIPA and SOPA would also allow copyright holders to get an unopposed court order to remove foreign websites from payment processors and advertisers. Even though copyright holders already have legal instruments to remove infringing material from the web under the DMCA notice-and-takedown procedure, PIPA and SOPA would provide them with capacity to shut down entire sites instead of just removing the infringing content.
Probably the most controversial provisions relate to enhanced authority of the Attorney General to block domain name services and to remove entire websites from search engines. Aside from being most certainly contrary to the First Amendment and therefore unconstitutional, this provision would effectively "criminalise linking and the fundamental structure of the internet itself”, as explained by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Even the White House and US President Barack Obama's administration announced that they will not support any legislation providing loopholes that could be used to curb citizens rights and freedoms.
“Combating online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small,” reads the White House statement.
Using his personal Twitter account, President Obama himself advocated the freedom of internet and against SOPA, saying “protect intellectual property, but don't threaten an open internet”. Huge pressure has been brought to bear on congressmen and senators from all sides and today's action by major websites is certain to generate even more chatter and activism.
SOPA might be discussed by the House of the Congress in early February and there are indications that PIPA may be debated in the Senate as soon as the next week. Despite being the US bills with immediate effects “just” in the US, SOPA and PIPA would have far-reaching consequences for internet users around the globe.
Moreover, SOPA and PIPA would create a dangerous precedent in cyber-legislation and even wider in the realm of the freedom of speech. In many jurisdictions around the world, including in Europe, we have already allowed for legislation that prioritises overly-broad copyright enforcement, special rights of internet providers in blocking and controlling the content, curbing free speech and access to information.
If you also agree with a free and open internet everywhere and for everyone, you can show your support by filling in the petition here.