SOPA, PIPA – What They Mean for You & Me
Among the hot topics being discussed this past week were the SOPA and PIPA laws pending in the U.S. Congress. But while we Asians live half a world away from where the legislation will take efect, these proposed laws have a long reach, and will potentially affect just about anyone of us, if enacted into law.
Two proposed laws are currently being deliberated on in the U.S. Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate. While there are current laws that exist to protect the rights of intellectual property owners, PIPA and SOPA aim to give teeth to law enforcement agencies and provide copyright owners more avenues in protecting their content.
However, there is stiff opposition to SOPA and PIPA, especially among the Internet community. While copyright groups like the RIAA and MPAA advocate the legislation, companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, and other prominent names have aired protest, saying that SOPA and PIPA will curtail freedom of speech. Meanwhile, security experts criticize the potential security flaws, particularly with regard to the technical aspects, such as DNS blocking and redirection.
The law’s provisions expound on how stakeholders can be affected. For one, your activities need not be on U.S. soil to be considered within jurisdiction of the law. SOPA and PIPA enables copyright holders or due authorities to seek court orders for the blocking of websites from being accessed by U.S.-based ISPs. Courts can order domain authorities to ban and block Internet domain names pertaining to infringers. Copyright holders can also ask online payment processing systems and advertising networks to cease dealing with infringers, thereby putting a squeeze to their business models.
The law means well, but the stipulations can also be overbearing, and the definitions are vague. For instance, domain name banning can go against the safe harbor provisions of the current Digital Milennium Copyright Act, which protects service providers from being shutdown if one of their users are found to have been infringing on copyrights. With this, websites that host user content, like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, WordPress, and the like, might be liable to lose their domain and business if a user posting content on his own account is found to violate the law.
Further, the proposed laws can potentially criminalize activities that are currently considered within fair use. For instance, uploading copyrighted content, even for non-commercial purposes, can be considered infringement. This way, the mere act of saving your music libraries to the cloud via iTunes Match or other storage service like Dropbox might make you criminally liable for supposedly uploading copyrighted content illegally. Websites like Flickr are in danger of being put offline because of user-uploads of images or photos of real-world items that might be copyrighted (such as a building facade, for instance).
There is also concern on the proposed use of DNS-resolution blockage might make websites vulnerable to hacker attacks, since legitimate DNS redirections might be difficult to distinguish from hacked ones, making web browsers vulnerable to spoofing.
On January 18, websites around the world expressed their opposition to SOPA and PIPA, with many prominent websites going offline or blacking out their content in protest. Wikipedia went offline, Google blacked-out its logo, and websites that hosted user-generated content urged their users to participate in the blackout. These sites have reasoned that the proposed IP-related acts will jeopardize online businesses and will curtail the freedom of users who put up legitimate content online.
Legislators close to the bill, as well as copyright groups, have criticized the critics for “promoting fear, instead of facts.” Representative Lamar Smith, principal sponsor of the SOPA bill says that the bill should primarily target foreign websites and businesses that profit from illegal use of copyrighted content. “The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social networking sites,” he says. Meanwhile, the MPAA has called these blackouts an “abuse of power,” saying that it is “a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interest.”
How Will it Affect Us?
SOPA and PIPA target the media and the content creators, meaning just about anyone who runs services that host content, or any person who uses services like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, WordPress where content can be uploaded. Even without actually operating from U.S. soil, web services can be curtailed, for as long as one’s content is deemed to be accessed from within the country’s jurisdiction.
To expound, popular file-locker service Megaupload has been recently taken offline, as per orders from the U.S. Department of Justice. What’s interesting to note is that Megaupload operates from Hong Kong, but runs several servers from within U.S. territory. The fact that a majority of Megaupload’s traffic and user-base comes from the U.S., and with its network facilities in the country, were cited as putting the service within U.S. jurisdiction.
Megaupload’s top executives, who are based in New Zealand, were likewise ordered arrested and are being extradited to the U.S. for trial for promoting copyright infringement and money laundering, among others. And this is possible even through existing laws, without SOPA nor PIPA being in effect.
The big question here is whether SOPA and PIPA are the best ways to address the problem of copyright infringement. Should censorship be the best weapon against piracy? Or, will piracy eventually fizzle out when users find convenient, fairly-priced and accessible ways to consume content legitimately?
For now, legislators have backed down indefinitely, saying they will still have to look into the merits of the proposed laws. Still, Internet users are urged to keep vigilant, since lobby groups — particularly those with vested interests among copyright groups — are likely to make another push for SOPA and PIPA sooner or later.
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