Computer America

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Origins of the Stop Online Piracy Act and its likely consequences.

If you’ve turned an eye towards the national media last month, odds are you’ve heard the buzz about the Stop Online Piracy Act. However, every telling of the story has a different facet from another’s perspective. What is the historical and economic context driving this bill through our Congress at rates we could only wish important things could get done at? What are the current laws for the internet and do they need changing? What does it mean for the internet and its users if SOPA gets passed?

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, signed into law in 1998, ratified two international treaties on handling copyright infringement commited on the internet. The law allows for limited protection for non-owners of material to use it under certain conditions. The exact legal underpinnings of which have come to be described as the ‘safe harbor’ or ‘fair use’ doctrines. Users may upload a copyrighted song to YouTube providing they have added a creative spin unique to the posting. This may take the form of a photo montage or scrolling lyrics in a strange font, but it doesn’t affect the quality of the song at all. Furthermore, YouTube, as the website orchestrator, has placed ads in every drop of available space and profits heavily.

Does this affect music and movie sales if their content can be streamed from YouTube from any portable device these days? You bet it does! Viacom, a major entertainment conglomerate, filed over 160,000 DMCA takedown notices on YouTube against it’s own content. YouTube only responded to about fifty of them, prompting a $1 billion lawsuit over the clips. In 2010, a judge decided the case of Viacom International Inc. v. YouTube, Inc. in favor of YouTube and it’s parent, Google. Since current law protects the titanic market entities such as Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo, Facebook, and other internet-based companies to steal the food right out of the mouths of the creative sectors of the economy like the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Viacom, and others, the solution is to rewrite the laws. In fact, over 350 other businesses and unions signed a letter to Congress trying to push this Act through.

The law itself turns our time-honored traditions of justice upside down. The DMCA, reflecting international laws ratified by every nation, declares that a user of the internet is innocent until proven guilty of theft by his accusers and allows for humans to do what we do best; get creative, innovate. The new laws would allow the justice department to force entire websites offline until the case was settled. Hyperbolically, one small complaint against YouTube could bring down the entire website for months while legal proceedings ensued, perhaps endlessly. Thus, the media has called this tantamount to an internet ‘blacklist’, where websites would just be shut down permanently. Critics have declared this to be too broad and ill-defined. It is well understood that a laws intended use and its potential uses can be drastically different.

With the safe harbor protections ham-handedly dismantled, users can expect the internet to start looking very different. The websites themselves will be able to adapt fairly well. The reason is still operating despite being the sharpest stick in the eye is very simple; they are Swedish. American law means nothing to them and their computers. Google can pay tech savvy people anywhere in the world to plug some servers into the network and begin hosting anywhere in the world, maybe from dozens of locations. Companies will not stay in a hostile environment, and since the internet is one of the last things America has going for it, this law comes off as particularly infuriating. And for those of us who can’t pick up and move to Sweeden? Users who upload videos will be open to legal attack by large goliath’s of capitalism, in an attempt to scare video uploaders away. The entire YouTube community would be devastated, if the website even continues to exist after American judges finish rubber stamping the blacklist.

The internet is one of our strongest assets right now. It allows people all over the world to communicate with each other at the speed of light without the lenses of media and governments. And this devastating piece of legislation being driven through Congress, now overtly in the pockets of big business, sought to destroy the global community that has been knitting itself together for about a generation now.