Monday, 23 January 2012

The Proposed ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ Could Be a Threat to the Freedom of Speech

Mikael Järvelin from the Finnish Institute blogs about the latest news on The United States' war against online piracy.

Last Wednesday, the January 18th, the English Wikipedia and many other significant websites blacked out for 24 hours. The blackout was a protest against The United States house bill, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and senate bill, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), which have been put forward to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. The Proposals would ban advertising on the allegedly infringing websites, bar search engines from linking to these sites and order Internet service providers to prohibit access to these sites. The proposal would also criminalize streaming of forbidden content with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Possibly the biggest problem with these proposals is that if carried out in their current form, they would also harm perfectly legal websites. Websites that are designed to able shearing of files or videos would for example be in danger, because they enable sharing of copyrighted material. These websites would be responsible for the files that the users post on their website. The government and some major corporations, such as record companies and movie studios, would have a chance to shut down websites that hold copyrighted material. These shutdowns wouldn’t even require a hearing or a trial.

One of the biggest concerns with these new proposed laws is that they would enable censoring of websites in a large scale. The United States would enable censorship of foreign websites. This would cause a serious threat to the freedom of speech as the United States government and some major corporations could censor foreign web pages. This has even been compared to the Chinese censorship on the Internet. United States would hardly be pleased about this sort of reputation.

What is comforting is that the protests by Wikipedia and the like-minded websites really made a difference. Before the blackout, the majority in the congress had supported the proposal, but afterwards there has been more opposition than support. Some people have called protests unnecessary, because in their view the proposal was unlikely to pass anyway. Even further, some have criticized that it is overreacting to close down global service because of one country’s national politics. Nevertheless, the protest really changed minds, so it is clear that the effort was not futile.

Only two days after the protests, SOPA and PIPA were temporarily shelved. The proposals will be reconsidered, but one thing is sure. We haven’t heard the last of these proposals. They will be back soon. We can only hope, that passing of these laws will not be reality in their current form, since this could cause a serious threat to democracy and to the freedom of speech.

Mikael Järvelin
The Finnish Institute in London


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