At the time of writing, US Congress is considering two bills, the PROTECT-IP Act (PDF) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (PDF). Some of those in the media industry argue that the acts, which will allow an unprecedented level of internet censorship under US law that will impact on the web worldwide, are necessary to protect jobs.
Opponents argue that the bills could turn the internet into a glorified version of cable TV and destroy innovation. Tumblr has been active in encouraging its US users to call their representatives and argue against "using the same domain blacklisting technologies pioneered by China and Iran"; elsewhere, an open letter also sent to Congressional leaders has been co-signed by AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo! and Zynga, all of whom rarely agree on anything else, which says a lot.
On speaking to those in the industry, it's clear the reaction to the bills is overwhelmingly negative. Mozilla developer Christian Heilmann told us the concept of SOPA becoming a reality was frightening: "The internet is an incredibly powerful communication tool that keeps people connected when they are not close and gives those a voice who can't get out via official communication channels. It also allows people to be creative and be found by showing their talents in videos, music and animations." He said that allowing the government to take down websites on perceived copyright infringements is a scary thought that will "not only censor the internet but also stem the flow of creativity that made the internet the success it is". He pointed out the hypocrisy in criticising countries like China, Iran and Syria for censoring free speech, and the US being ready to do the same on the grounds of lost income in the entertainment industry.
A broad, dangerous act
Suw Charman-Anderson, a social software consultant and writer, told us that SOPA is too broad, fails to understand the technology it's trying to control, and would have some dreadful unintended consequences: "It seeks to give copyright holders the power to insist that online advertising networks or credit card processing services sever their relationship with any website, simply by pointing the finger. They would be able to undermine a website's business without any judicial oversight, leaving sites vulnerable to false and malicious accusations."
In addition, she said the bill would enable the US government to force ISPs to DNS-block any foreign site accused of infringement. "Worse, SOPA is being frogmarched through by the House Judiciary Committee without adequate discussion or consideration," she added. "Indeed, their hearings yesterday featured only one opposing voice, that of Google, whom they sought to undermine by painting them as a company that makes money out of piracy." Heilmann also noted the bill's scope, telling us that it could impact on anyone who has a site that hosts comments or has the potential to include content that in any way infringes the rights of a copyright holder. "The most annoying part about this bill is not that it is about illegal, political or dangerous content, it is about showing a video or using a soundtrack that doesn't belong to you," he said. "It's not about protecting citizens or upholding the peace or bringing order to the internet – it is driven by greed and backed by a total failure to understand how the web works [and] it will not affect the piracy scene at all, which can work with IPs instead of domain names, and go back to old-school distribution channels."
Self-described digital veteran Jon Bains was also aghast at the plans, penning a satirical article on his site about how he learned to love the act. With his serious hat on, he told us the proposals will effectively wreck current safe-harbour provisions: "If you see a link that you think is infringing and report it, the site owner must take it down when made aware of it, or become responsible. But what's now being proposed – among other things – is for sites to police IP proactively. If they 'don't do enough to prevent it', whatever that means, they become liable and can be shut down without ever going to court."
Bains believes the impact on start-ups will be immeasurable: "Any start-up with any kind of social aspect – i.e. most of them – will be held accountable for the behaviour of their audience. The legal bills alone will kill most start-ups before they get to prototype, never mind the cost of the not-so-accurate filtering software that various parties are trying to shill."
He adds that it might be worth thinking about shifting key domains from .com, .net or .org, and that if you're a social start-up in the UK with a requirement or aspirations to head over to the US at some point "you might as well not bother" if SOPA passes.