Wikipedia, Reddit, BoingBoing, Greenpeace – what do they have in common? They’re all blacking out in protest of two anti-piracy acts being debated in the US. But what has this got to do with us in the UK?
Hopefully nothing at all, but there is a big chance that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) could affect the internet worldwide, and not just in the United States.
These acts seek to tackle copyright infringement online, and would allow the US Department of Justice and copyright owners to seek court orders to take down infringing websites.
In protest, online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, social news site Reddit, blog BoingBoing and activists Greenpeace have all closed down their sites for the day. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay and consumer organisations also oppose the acts.
SOPA and PIPA in brief
If a company believes a website is infringing its copyright, either by specifically enabling this (such as an illegal file sharing website) or simply facilitating it (such as an un-moderated forum), this company could request court orders for ISPs to block access to that site.
Search engines would also be asked to remove that site from search results, and payment services and advertisers would be forbidden from doing business with it.
In theory, the whole of YouTube could be blocked if one user-submitted video is accused of infringing copyright. This is why SOPA has been criticised for enforcing internet censorship, rather than simply removing infringing content.
Moreover, companies won’t have to prove infringement in court to block a site, they will simply have to file notice of an infringement – i.e. a site doesn’t have to be convicted of piracy, it only has to be accused.
Why should I care about US anti-piracy acts?
So could this affect us in the UK? Quite possibly, yes. The act specifically talks about blocking access to foreign websites that are outside the reach of US law, such as The Pirate Bay which is hosted in Sweden. Then again, we could be shielded – when SOPA refers to blocking access to a site, it means stopping US citizens from accessing it.
However, it’s difficult to see how this would work in practice. Websites that are blacklisted in the US could still struggle to support themselves on a worldwide scale, resulting in them being forced to close down – this would be especially true of start-ups.
Plus, it would be hard for sites to keep their actions US specific. SOPA would require user-generated websites like Wikipedia to police all links to make sure they don’t host infringing content (otherwise Wikipedia itself could be in danger of being blacklisted). It’s likely that Wikipedia would do this across its site, rather than creating a specific censored US version.
In short, when a country as powerful as the US passes a law affecting the worldwide web, it’s going to impact services for everyone.
On a more fundamental level, if SOPA or PIPA is passed, it would set a precedent for other countries to tackle online piracy in the same way. I don’t want to see an internet where websites are blocked willy nilly, especially when this is unlikely to deter the people who are specifically out to pirate content.
In my opinion, SOPA and PIPA are like fighting fire with the Great Flood, drowning the internet as we know it, while the offending pirates sail to safety.