Wednesday, 18th January 2012
Nancy Davis Kho
Today was a bad day to be a high school student with a term paper due, or a senator whose name is listed under "Co-Sponsor" for two controversial pieces of legislation designed to crack down on internet content piracy. In protest at the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) currently passing through the US Senate, and its companion House of Representatives version, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), major websites opposed to the legislation including Wikipedia and Reddit have "blacked out" their sites for the day.
The blackout protest pits content creators like Hollywood studios, record labels and fashion lines trying to prevent "knock-offs" of their designs from being sold online against Internet companies, concerned that SOPA puts an unfair burden on them and skates dangerously close to censorship. Wikipedia's page is a stark grey and black and invites users to input a US zip code, which then provides a list of elected representatives to contact to register a protest.
(Especially interesting for California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, for whom both Hollywood and Silicon Valley write generous checks.) The Google homepage still allows search, but the Google logo is blacked out and a prominent link invites readers to learn more about how their activities would be curtailed were SOPA to pass.
The pressure seems to be working. As documented in this timeline on Mashable, one senator after the next dropped their support of the bill as the day has worn on – on the PIPA side, senators who withdrew their support included the bill's co-sponsor Marc Rubio from Florida, Missouri Sen Roy Blunt, and Texas Sen John Cornyn. SOPA had its list of supporters in flight, including the bill's co-sponsor Arizona Rep Ben Quayle and Nebraska Rep Lee Terry.
The lead SOPA sponsor, Texas Rep Lamar Smith, sounded a defiant note in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, but by now it should be clear that neither bill was fully cooked.
There's no question that controls on content copyright infringement are desirable, at least not from responsible end users. But, as the virulent reaction from web companies and their users indicates ("what, no YouTube ever again if SOPA passes?"), we're a long way off striking a balance between overly restrictive policies and unfettered copyright abuse.
With virtually every senator saying that the matter needs further study, here's hoping the next version has a more solid grounding in reality.
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