SOPA, OPEN and the Future of Modern Communications

By Phil Youngblood

I was toying with blacking out my column to join the protest of pending U.S. legislation that could have far-reaching effects on the nature of modern communications. If you are not sure to what I refer, let me get you caught up.

The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) bill [H.R. 3261, introduced last October] was intended to counter theft of intellectual property (called piracy in virtual space) – the full title was “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.”

While this sounds noble enough (thefts of intellectual property in the United States alone run into the billions of dollars annually), it is the “for other purposes” part that has social media, search engine, online advertising, and other businesses that depend on the free and open Web for their livelihood and self-expression up in arms.

While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) enacted treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1998 and extended the concept of copyright to virtual space, it only went so far as to force website owners to remove items when they were shown to be in violation of copyright law (which is why you might see a YouTube video one day and it is gone the next).

SOPA (and a Senate version called PIPA) go much further. In their original forms they put the burden of preventing copyright infringements by users on website owners themselves, imposing criminal penalties for unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material, requiring Internet service providers (that is, ISPs, the businesses we pay to gain access to the Internet and who enable us to see websites) to block access to whole sites, search engines from linking to those sites, and advertising and payment agencies from conducting business with the companies associated with those sites. Protests were immediate and widespread. A revised bill was submitted (and tabled in December) that limited the actions described to sites specifically designed for the intent of promoting copyright infringement outside of the United States.

Opponents to SOPA point out the very purpose of the bill is counter to its title, that the Web as it exists today — free and uncontrolled — is what promotes prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation, despite theft of intellectual property and other misuses by a relatively small number of users.

Opponents see this bill as violating the First Amendment of free speech and as censorship of the Web. The United States would be guilty of the same heavy-handed censorship as some other nations around the world. Opponents also do not think a bill that could punish everyone for the transgressions of a few is just. They also point out the impracticality of monitoring billions of web pages with dynamically changing content and policing the activities of billions of users worldwide. This impracticality would almost guarantee Google and Wikipedia and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter could not operate as they do today. This would have worldwide implications and change the nature of modern communications.

On Jan. 18, 2012, the nearly 4 million English language pages of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) were blocked for a day in protest of these bills and some 7,000 other sites followed suit to one degree or the other. Incidentally, Wikipedia first polled its users before committing to such an action and they overwhelmingly supported the blackout. Since that date, deliberation on SOPA has been postponed and opponents have proposed the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) as an alternative. Be assured we have not heard the last of this.

This is my first article in a series this year on the social aspects of “computers in your life.” I invite your feedback and dialogue. I particularly invite discussion and opinion on this topic.

E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

Phil Youngblood

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