The netizens of the global village have just won a significant battle against two new American copyright laws being discussed in Congress, which could heavily limit free access and personal use of online information.
Following a first phase of sensational protest actions carried out in the past few days by Internet users, activists and entrepreneurs, the US Congress has now halted the debate on the two bills.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to delay a vote on one of the bills, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), which was scheduled for next Tuesday, 24 January. And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said his panel would not discuss the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) until a compromise is reached.
The provisions included in the two bills, which first came under consideration of Congress last October, would enable copyright holders to cap any use of a good part of contents available online. This could change radically how people use the Internet and how digital media businesses and services operate, news making entities in the first place, affecting the way journalists and communication professionals work, while imposing stifling standards on the freedom to divulge news.
Should the bills ever turn into law, cyber activists say, they would represent an international policing and censorship licence tailored to serve the interests of US entertainment conglomerates and to grant a new, international scope to US law enforcement agencies. They would hinder free circulation of information and exchange of ideas and impinge on the free use of communication means which have by now become vital tools for community life, cultural endorsement, civic debate, expression of social dissent and denunciation of abuses.
Now that the Congress has backtracked, protest actions may ebb but several thousand websites, servers, providers, blogs and social networks –among them the biggest names of the Internet economy– have made it clear that they are on red alert status and ready to stage new cyber strikes and partial or temporary blackouts of their services.
On its part, the cyber hacktivist group Anonymous has announced to be ready, if necessary, to launch attacks on US government and US entertainment corporations similar to those carried out last Thursday.
Leading the Internet business protest is Wikipedia. Last Wednesday, the online encyclopaedia and blog service WordPress blacked out the main page of their websites in the USA for 24 hours.
A banner on the blacked-out page of Wikipedia alerted users to the dangers of a “world without free knowledge” and invited everyone to contact American politicians to remonstrate. The blacked-out page, Wikipedia sources said later, was viewed 162 million times and eight million viewers followed the suggestion to make their voice heard by American lawmakers.
Upon restarting business the next day, Wikipedia put out a new message banner to stress that “We’re not done yet” with the protest.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also made his voice heard by posting a tweet for the first time in almost three years, exhorting people to “tell your congressmen you want them to be pro-internet” and linking the tweet to a longer statement on Facebook. According to Zuckerberg, the proposed bills are “poorly thought out laws,” destined to “get in the way of the Internet’s development,” and for this very reason they are formally opposed by his company.
Google took part in the action, too. The world’s number one search engine operator urged visitors to its site to sign a petition against the proposed bills and collected over 4.5 million signatures.
More in keeping with its guerrilla approach, Anonymous launched a raid in reprisal of the shutdown of the Megaupload file-sharing website.
Disseminating web links through tweets and other Internet venues and making everyone clicking on the links part of the attack, Anonymous hit at the Department of Justice, the FBI, Universal Music, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America, Hadopi (the French government agency responsible for intellectual property protection) and other US official and corporate sites, which were temporarily disabled or clogged and slowed down.
Megaupload, a Hong Kong based service, which has over 150 million users and is popular with music lovers, has been accused by US authorities of infringing copyright laws and four of the company’s employees have been arrested in New Zealand on a request on the part of the US justice system.
A Department of Justice official stressed that the hacktivists’ raid was not related to what has been stirring the Internet lately, but the association between the two forms of protest in terms of copyright laws and international court orders appears clear.
The vociferous and resolute dissent manifested by the cyber sphere affected two US lawmakers of the Republican Party who were among the co-sponsors of the proposed bills.
After witnessing the degree of disapproval for SOPA and PIPA, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri announced last Thursday that they have changed their minds, largely accepting the “legitimate concerns” of netizens and withdrawing their support for the new norms.
Unlike politicians though, who in the US are always very sensitive to direct pressures from their electorate, the entertainment lobby has not modified its stance. Backers of the legislation, led by the MPAA and Comcast, branded protest actions as “irresponsible” publicity stunts, while Creative America –a group representing major companies in the movie world, such as Disney and Warner Bros– has launched an ad campaign in the US, offering people advice on “what to do during an internet blackout” and suggesting to resort to more traditional activities such as reading books, listening to music or watching movies.
Ex-Senator Chris Dodd, MPAA’s chief executive, added that the blackouts were an “abuse of power” and accused big Internet businesses of “intentionally skew(ing) the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.”
News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, a staunch SOPA supporter, spoke his mind too, accusing cyber protesters, through a Twitter post, of “terrorising many senators and congressmen” in the USA with threats of Internet blackouts.
Positions on the issue could not be more starkly contrasted. And indifference does not seem an option, neither in the US nor in the rest of the world.
What’s happening on American shores has global implications, and Peter Bradwell, a campaigner with the Open Rights Group in the UK, points out how SOPA’s explicit aim is to allow US companies and the judicial system to “tackle foreign websites.”
Some US laws already allow blocking content and even whole websites for violations of copyright, but those laws were written when the Internet looked nothing like it does today and foreign governments never recognized them. The new norms, especially SOPA, seem to be designed to make up for these two shortcomings.
A fortnight ago, the Online News Association (ONA) came out strongly against the proposed federal legislation because of the international scope of its judicial implications, which go well beyond the formally stated purpose of curbing illegal copying and online distribution of copyrighted contents.
ONA, which represents editors, writers, engineers and other professionals working for digital media, contends that the bills favour the tendency of copyright owners to control online content by means of court orders. They would use these to block infringing content, but also to try to block entire web pages or even whole sites throughout the world, while giving the US attorney general the power to block content or websites deemed to be engaging in activities considered to be unlawful.
The SOPA text upon which the Senate has to debate, according to Congress reports, has been changed from the House version, eliminating one of the most controversial provisions: a complicated take-down notice process, which would have created an index of allegedly rogue sites even before they were actually targeted by courts. But as it stands, cyber activists lament, the SOPA still allows copyright owners to go straight to court to file a lawsuit and get a court order to remove from the web whatever they may regard as infringing contents even before the case is settled.
A main problem with the proposed bills, cyber activists argue, lies in their language: it is still murky and ill defined, despite claims to be an updated interpretation of the new legal problems posed by the development of the Internet.
The whole text seems to revolve around the concept of “copyright infringement” but there is no clear definition of the concept itself in the digital era. By default, the definition is left to interpretation based on old copyright standards, or on copyright holders’ claims and judges’ assessments.
Hillel I. Parness, a partner who specializes in intellectual property litigation at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in New York, thinks the language ought definitely to be more articulated and updated, since the booming evolution of the Internet has created a new environment for the circulation of information. We cannot ignore that in this new environment we have “thousands of bloggers shouting their opinions,” and citizens exchanging ideas and engaging in social activities.
“Who decides what is copyright infringement?” asked RebeccaMacKinnon, a former CNN journalist, in a Bloomberg interview. “If you’re setting up a system of blacklisting websites at the national level you’re basically installing a censorship mechanism that is almost identical, technically, to the mechanism the Chinese use tocensor their Internet, that the Iranians use, and so on.”
This view resonates with the position taken by the American Society of News Editors.
In a late December press release the association of newspaper professionals came out against SOPA and PIPA, saying that they would deter the “free aggregation of content that has become central to online journalism.”
And yet lawmakers behind the bills insist that, like all authors, journalists too should be in favour of tough copyright laws, which would establish strict standards to protect the contents they create.
The trouble is, law experts point out, that the bills do not only target those who steal copyrights or infringe on them, but they also give judges the power to decide what constitutes a novel piece of information and what does not, what is original information and what is copyrighted information.
In practical terms this means that a judge will be able to decide what piece of information is worth divulging to the general public, in other words, what constitutes news.
As a consequence, a judge would also be in the position to decide who is and who is not a journalist or a news professional.
James Losey, of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, sees this as an unnecessary and dangerous power, because “it represents too much control over what information flows online.”
This is the core of the matter, Losey says: “what we’re seeing is a wake-up call for a lot of people, especially those who don’t normally pay attention to copyright legislation. This is not a copyright debate anymore. This legislation goes directly to tampering with how people use the Internet each and every day. It goes to how we mediate with our government and how we relate to our news.
“If you start tampering with the basic interaction with the Internet and undermining free speech, you are effectively tampering with all aspects of online life, including access to information,” Losey concludes.
Some journalists and news media professionals have stressed how the bills aim at restraining and punishing not only websites that engage in criminal copyright infringement and counterfeiting, but also the ones devoted to promoting services or products to circumvent the legislation’s provisions.
This, once again, is of major significance to reporters, editors and news media producers who make use of encrypted technology to exchange sensitive information or to communicate with anonymous sources.
Under the proposed norms, encrypted Internet messages, along with the employment of any technology made to protect files as they are passed between individuals and servers, could be –and would very likely be– labelled as illegal. Popular online and easily available programs of the so-called torrent variety, produced by web enthusiasts to enable anonymous communication and exchange of files, would be destined to fall under the courts’ axe.
And yet, these types of programs also include software written for the Tor Project, an initiative funded by the US State Department with the aim to engender encryption technology in order to facilitate massive file transfers–which in most cases would inevitably be covered by some sort of copyright.
Indeed, the Tor Project software is a particularly popular tool among online pirates, but also among civic organizations, whistle blowers –even Wikileaks made good use of it– and dissidents living in countries with oppressive regimes.
Luckily for the netizens of the world, this paradox seems bound to force US senators to introduce major changes in the language of SOPA and PIPA–or the new law would contradict and thwart the purpose of a free speech technology sponsored by the State Department.
The recent Congress decisions to halt the debate on the two bills seem to suggest that this is the case. But what netizens have now won is just a battle. And the struggle is likely still far from over.