US information struggle is over bills 'that could break the internet'
WHILE South Africans are fighting the Protection of Information Bill, Americans are rallying against two bills here, SOPA and PIPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protection of Intellectual Property Act.
They are cousins that together form what has become known as the Internet Blacklist Legislation.
While the bills in the US and the one in SA may have different aims and ideas, the outcomes of both sets greatly affect freedom of speech.
Critics argue these bills that the US government is looking to pass will fundamentally change the internet and, if implemented, have repercussions that will be felt around the world.
SOPA, which was introduced in October and is a House of Representatives bill, attempts to combat the activities of so-called "rogue websites" based outside the US, which are engaging in widespread copyright infringement of entertainment content and the sale of counterfeit goods such as prescription drugs.
It has been brought on by the likes of the Motion Picture Association of America and the US Chamber of Business, as an attempt to protect the intellectual property market, including its revenue and jobs, and proponents feel it is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws especially against foreign websites.
Opponents say that, ultimately, it is internet censorship and they have gone so far as to say it will "cripple" or "break" the internet. The outcry comes over the scenario these two measures seek to create. They give power to the federal government to take down websites that host pirated material, even if the sites were unaware of the piracy.
This affects user-generated sites like YouTube and Twitter, among others, and other start-ups wishing to follow these sites.
Critics object to the vague and broad wording of SOPA and the power the proposed law gives to enforcement agencies.
If SOPA or PIPA passes, the government can order internet providers to block any site for its users' infringing posts, using the same DNS (Domain Name System) methods as in China or Iran, which the US has been vocal about condemning. Not only that, but it becomes a felony with a potential five-year sentence to stream a copyrighted work that would cost more than $2500 to license, even if you are a noncommercial user.
If passed, the act will give the US government the ability to ban websites from using online paying services such as PayPal and Visa. It could also go as far as actually disabling Google from ranking them in search results and linking to them.
As has been reported, this would spill over to other countries too, because court orders will be given to those beyond American jurisdiction who infringe American copyrights. So foreign websites in countries like SA would be just as vulnerable as those established on the act's home soil. It also remains to be seen what example this would set for other major companies looking to curb movie and music piracy.
The legislation would end up creating a storm of lawsuits, as thousands of sites that are legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would face new threats.
This would all be on top of the extremely hostile legal environment that would be created for small startups planning to be the next YouTube or Twitter. Sites such as these are protected from liability for users' posts, as long as they take down infringing material. This legislation would essentially make them liable.
A number of web giants have come out against this legislation, including Google and Mozilla, which publishes the Firefox browser.
Mozilla was part of a viral campaign earlier this month, driven by civil society groups and tech policy organisations, called American Censorship Day (using the hashtag #USACensored on Twitter).
It urged people to turn their logos black and called on them to contact their members of Congress to express their dissatisfaction. The online protest, according to organisers, sparked 1-million e-mails and 87000 phone calls to Congress to protest at the wording of SOPA.
PIPA is expected to go to a vote later in the year or early next year.
A hold has been placed on it, with Democrat Senator Ron Wyden expressing concern that the measure as written would "obstruct a free and open internet". SOPA is expected to go up for House debate this month. But, just like in SA, those opposing this legislation won't go down without a fight.
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