The Internet is an expansive collection of networks, utilized by many people all over the world. Though parts of the Internet have proven to be relatively shady, lawless, and impossible to regulate, as a whole, it has mainly been beneficial to all its users. And because of this, few have tampered with the regulation and general availability of the Internet, at least, successfully.
There are some entities that would have the Internet not be so free and boundless as it is. But due to the difficulty of effectively shutting down even a piece of the Internet, these entities resort to only blocking or censoring the parts that they wish restrict from their people. China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East are examples of countries where Internet censorship has been imposed by their governments.
Recently, a bill has been introduced to Congress, the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA). The bill’s purpose is stated as, “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.”
To accomplish this, the bill would grant the government, after a successful lawsuit is filed, the power to block access and cutoff financial transactions from the website of the defending party (a “foreign infringing site”). Granted, there is a clearly stated criterion for what is considered a “foreign infringing site”, but the biggest concern here is that this bill would allow the government to have the ability to block access to any website from US citizens. This idea alone is enough to have sparked a tremendous opposition against the passing of this bill.
There are other important arguments too, such as the liabilities and policy imposed by the bill that would hinder the growth of a portion of Internet economy. Another argument against the bill is that it would bypass due process when exposing US sites to liability. A government the likes of the United States’ which was founded on the ideal of freedom, should not be granted the power to censor information from it’s people.
Though the idea of the government gaining such power over the Internet is quite an unpopular one, the actual purpose of the bill isn’t as worrying. The bill’s purpose is to target and halt any illegal business conducted by foreign infringing entities; online pirates who have, for the sake of escaping the jurisdiction of US law enforcement, fled to other countries with more lenient Internet copyright regulations.
Search engines and Internet service providers would be used to locate the foreign infringing sites and after having any advertising companies cease business with the foreign infringing sites, funding for them would be cut. Considering much of what is stated in the bill, it can be said that it brings forth an effective, albeit unpopular and unethical, means of accomplishing what its title dictates.
As stated before, many concerns regarding the passing of this bill stem from the fact that it would grant the government an uncomfortable amount of control over what can and cannot be accessed on the Internet.
But another issue with SOPA is that it undermines and, in some cases, goes against some laws that have already been established. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was passed in October 1998, really set the standard for copyright law on the Internet.
According to 17 U.S.C. § 512 stated within DMCA, service providers on the Internet are not liable for the actions or content produced by their users. These service providers also don’t need to conduct any action in response to their users breaking copyright laws aside from notifying the party whose copyright is being infringed.
The SOPA states that upon receiving the copy of the suit from the Attorney General (AG), against the foreign infringing site, they must do everything within their power to halt access to the foreign infringing site from their subscribers, even if it means blocking access to the site completely. If service providers do not comply with this, an action for injunctive relief may be presented AG.
SOPA’s haphazardly constructed definition for a website “dedicated to theft of U.S. property,” allows for sites that just barely meet the mark of facilitating or enabling a user’s infringement to be incorrectly labeled as “dedicated to theft of U.S. property.”
Erickson states that, “A site can also be declared to be “dedicated to theft of U.S. property” if it takes “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability” that the site has been used for infringing activities.
This is true whether or not the “failure to act” would itself violate existing law. And because rightsholders will say that there is a “high probability” that social networking and user-generated content sites are used for infringement by some users, this provision would effectively force those site operators to actively monitor their users’ activities.
This is flatly inconsistent with the DMCA’s provision stating that service providers do not have to monitor user activities.
It is clear that much of the bill’s inner workings are problematic in terms of running parallel with current laws regarding copyrights and in terms of general clarity. But the greatest issue that would arise from the passing of this bill is the power that would be granted to the government, the ability to ultimately censor the Internet. Though the thought of the government censoring the Internet seems extreme, the possibility is there. The bill would not let the government block access to any website, only one’s that meet certain criteria. But to put the government in that position where it has any Internet censorship capabilities at all would just be irresponsible.
The mere thought of the United States government having the ability to censor information from US citizens sounds not only ludicrous, it is downright unconstitutional.
Most of the concerns about SOPA’s potential censorship issues have sprouted from the fact that the criteria for parties that could be targeted is very broad. Under the bill’s definition for a site “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property”, websites that allow their users to post information would be liable if even one of their users posts something that infringes on someone’s copyright. This being the case, similar web
sites may no longer wish to be held accountable for such a vast amount of user’s actions, so they might start restricting what can be posted. Something like this could cause many of a website’s users to stop using the site. So with a very predictable case like this, the bill could easily cause the decay of business, job-creation, and innovation for many websites like Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook.
A solution that could be considered to making this bill work better and be more popular would be to allow all current laws that the bill would change to remain the same. Another thing would be to alter the problematic definitions that I have stated before into a form that would not have such a broad range of targets.
In the case of the governments power to censor websites, that power would never be granted; the fund cuts utilizing the advertising companies would remain the primary means of shutting down foreign infringing site.
There are quite a few things that are unacceptable about this bill that make it generally unpopular. The unnecessary changes it makes to current laws that work fine, the awkward writing of some very important definitions stated within the bill, and for the bill to hold websites liable for even just one of their users’ conduct. But perhaps the most important concern with the bill, if it were passed, it would give the government the capacity to censor foreign infringing sites. To say that this could change over time to allow for more broad criteria for legally “justified” censorship is definitely a possibility.
Julian Carmona is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and a contributing writer to the Michigan Chronicle.