The Death of the Internet?

“The Death of the Internet,”  “SOPA is the end of us, say bloggers,” “The Most Dangerous Bill in Congress”—all of these headlines have been blaring throughout the nation over the past couple of months as the Stop Online Piracy Act, championed by Congressman Lamar Smith. While both of the bills look to be tabled for now, the issue of intellectual property versus freedom of speech is not going away.

There are strong points on both sides of the debate but in my opinion the possibility of harm caused by the PIPA bill far outweighs the benefits. Although theoretically the bill should only extend to websites with clearly infringing content, the possibilities of restricting the free speech of normal Americans is a potential threat that should not be taken lightly by either our legislature or us, their constituents.

After the negation of SOPA by President Obama, supporters of PIPA, such as the Motion Picture Association of America, quickly released a statement that effectively continued their battle to get PIPA, or legislation like it, passed:

“We applaud the continued leadership in the House and Senate for working to enact common-sense legislation to stop foreign websites from stealing American creativity and jobs. Misinformation simply can’t be allowed to replace honest debate, and derail the critically important fight to protect American jobs.”

But to people in the Internet industry, whether they are large companies like Google or individual political bloggers, the news of SOPA and PIPA being tabled is not enough. Although supporters of SOPA and PIPA claim that only foreign websites would be targeted, any sort of website or large search engine that links to any foreign websites or has copyrighted material would be subject to penalties and huge liabilities. This would effectively restrict a large amount of results that would show up under a normal search, and critics of the bill argue that those restrictions are tantamount to infringement of the constitutional right to free speech.

Thus, the issue becomes more complicated than the doomsday headlines would make it seem. Americans should have the right to protect their intellectual property. A good example was the case being investigated by the US Justice Department against Google because they linked to ads from a foreign website that sold fake drugs to American consumers at the expense of both their health and the intellectual rights of the real producers. But where is the line between protecting both American producer and consumer rights and allowing the government to monitor the Internet to the point where free speech becomes compromised?

I believe, like many others, that it is a matter of magnitude. As it stands, these bills are vaguely worded and extremely open. According to an article by the President of Americans for Job Security, Stephen DeMaura and the director of Demand Progress, David Segal, SOPA “creates an unprecedented “private right of action” that would allow a private party, without any involvement by a court, to effectively shut down a website”.

This means that any third party could file a claim that says a certain website has “infringing content”—even if untrue, the consequences for not pulling down the offending content within five days are enormous. Under this bill, the government provides the right to shut down a website or prevent search engines from linking to them under very minimal claims of copyright infringement or piracy. PIPA is only the Senate version of SOPA—the same fears that are expressed by individuals and agencies over SOPA are very similar to the fears that are expressed over PIPA.

On top of this fear, any website would also be subject to liability for any user-generated posts. While this does not mean that any comment or link posted up would immediately be monitored, it does open the website up to huge amounts of liability if the comment is reported and acted upon. Blogs, and indeed many websites, run on the ability to say whatever commenters want without fear of retribution (within limits of course).

Do we really want to give the government the power to limit free speech to that extent? Most people, I believe, would agree with the need to protect intellectual property rights. Not many would want their comments subject to government intervention.

So what is the solution? Is there one? Perhaps. And that solution may just come from the same area that the bill originated in—the House of Representatives.

Another act, called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, championed by Congressman Darrell Issa, promises to create an avenue for intellectual property right holders to protect their own products or ideas without completely shutting down the websites that may be hosting them.  It essentially is a toned down version of SOPA—a bill that would help protect both the intellectual property holders of America and the booming online market that has contributed so much to American culture and business over the last few decades. While it too should be carefully looked at to make sure that it truly benefits both sides, it does provide an avenue out of the quagmire that supporters of the bill argue the Internet’s lax policies have created.

SOPA and PIPA were temporarily defeated by the concerted effort of both concerned citizens and websites that were willing to take a stand against censorship. So what can college students like us do about it? If you are interested or care about this issue (as you probably should, since most of us use the Internet all day every day), take a few minutes and go to stopcensorship.org and sign the petition, or write to your congressman expressing your dissatisfaction with bills of this type. They may not be the death of the Internet, but without opposition to them, they may well be a herald of the death of free speech.

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