Proposed online piracy acts threaten basic human rights

January 28, 2012

“To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.”

That is the official tagline of the recent revival of an old argument: piracy, and how to deal with it.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced by US Congressman Lamar Smith, is the latest attempt to curb the proliferation of illegal content on the web. First brought up in the House of Representatives on October 26th, 2011, the bill has since seen a number of changes, resulting in its most recent state. If passed in its latest iteration, the bill would enable the American Department of Justice and copyright holders to easily gain court orders against apparently illegal content online. These court orders would allow for the banning of the provision of advertising and payment services, such as PayPal, to the accused website, removal from search engines and even blocking of the website by Internet service providers. Websites would then have to abide with shutdown notices or defend their claim in court.

It’s ridiculous to imagine how this extreme form of censorship could be espoused. Imagine if this were the case for criminal cases such as theft or murder. Essentially, the accused would be placed in jail immediately upon suspicion of crime and not released until able to prove individual innocence. This train of thought runs in exact opposition to the “innocent until proven guilty” modus operandi we are so familiar with. Indeed, so entrenched is this concept in most democracies that it is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even existing in some form as far back as in ancient Rome, the burden of proof has been so – Ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat; proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.

SOPA completely reverses this idea and places the impetus on the accused, forcing them to waste time and resources to prove their product is lawful. Sure, no one is actually being thrown in jail when they are accused, it’s just their website that is shut down. But in this age of digitalization, where intangible ideas and content on the web can be someone’s livelihood, it is almost just as severe.

And those intangible ideas and content? Most of us use and enjoy them in some form every single day. How often do you visit YouTube? Flickr? Tumblr? All of these online communities are driven by user-generated content. They depend on people sharing their ideas and often, these users rely on their content to generate personal revenue. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), countless videos are taken down on YouTube everyday due to apparent copyright violations.

Under SOPA, this power that copyright holders already have would only multiply. But Kim Smith, spokesman for Representative Smith, tells us not to worry, “This bill does not make it a felony for a person to post a video on YouTube of their children singing to a copyrighted song. The bill specifically targets websites dedicated to illegal or infringing activity. Sites that host user content (like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter) have nothing to be concerned about under this legislation.”

But why wouldn’t we be concerned? If these social networking sites failed to comply with a takedown notice, they would be just as liable to be shutdown, as per the clause that circumventing SOPA’s provisions would be just as bad as knowingly committing copyright infringement. SOPA would essentially hand copyright holders an authoritarian level of power, which they’d be free to wield at a moment’s notice, immediately endangering freedom of speech and expression. Not to mention, this level of power extends beyond borders, with the American Department of Justice just as able to apprehend foreign sites, in fact, this is one of the primary goals of the act.

The White House is facing heavy pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents all the movie studios in Hollywood. They suffer the most from piracy of course: with movies available for free online, who needs DVDs?  But why is the American government so heavily swayed by a group of media corporations? Perhaps because funding for lawmakers and election campaigns is so heavily tied to such groups.

In accordance with this allegiance to the MPAA, the FBI shut down Megaupload Limited (known for megaupload.com) on January 19th. The owners were arrested and are now involved in a series of criminal investigations. The company, based in Hong Kong, has had more than 39 million dollars frozen by this action.

On the other side of the coin, the technology sector has shown almost unanimous opposition to the act, with giants such as Google and Facebook expressing concern at the proposition. Wikipedia and many other communities online participated in an all day blackout on January 18th, with Wikipedia’s page reading, “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”

Meanwhile, media organizations continue their support of the legislation, with Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, rather vocal in his denouncement of US President Obama’s pace in passing the act. The media mogul tweeted, “So Obama has thrown his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery.”

Even if that were true, I’d much rather live with thieves than live under totalitarians.

While I certainly don’t support piracy, isn’t this movement akin to burning down an entire forest because of a few bad trees? The level of control demanded by SOPA supporters is frighteningly starting to resemble China’s Great Firewall.

Currently, SOPA is navigating the murky waters of more committee meetings and markups. And it seems that until the big wigs come to a consensus on what they want the bill to do, there it will remain, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the postponement of PIPA, a proposed acts with similar goals to SOPA, on January 20th. Lamar Smith announced the same thing regarding SOPA only a few hours later. This is something to be thankful for, at least for now.

Another piece of legislation that incites similar cause for concern, and that online protestors have set their sights on, is ACTA (The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), an international agreement signed by eight countries worldwide in mid October of 2011, including Canada and the United States. Ratification has not yet been enacted, but it raises similar concerns for freedom of use on the Internet, as well as increasing the possibility of jail time and strict repercussions for minor copyright offences, with some parts of the agreement even liable to have negative impacts in the developing world with the inclusion of patents for vital pharmaceutical products that many countries cannot afford.

While freedom of expression on the Internet seems threatened at the moment, it’s promising that online communities and countless individuals have banded together to speak out against proposed legislation and made huge strides in informing the masses. Hopefully actions such as these are powerful enough to protect the virtual landscape that has become so entrenched in our daily lives.