Thursday, 15 March 2012


On January 20th, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) was officially put on hold and withdrawn from being put to the vote in the House of Representatives, while PIPA (the Protect IP Act),  a similar contemporary bill proposed in the Senate, was also put on hold. So why were two pieces of proposed legislation that gained initial momentum from its determined advocates, suddenly derailed?

Let's start with what, in plain English, the Acts proposed to do. SOPA and PIPA were concerned with protecting U.S copyright holders from having their copyright and intellectual property (IP) violated and illegally copied by U.S-based or foreign web sites and internet users. Sounds good, right? Except the definition of copyright and intellectual property, and what the infringement of the concepts entails, was too vague and open to abuse. Additionally, the provisions to provide an opportunity for alleged offenders to mount a fair defense, are lacking. In fact, the legally guaranteed rights of web sites and users could be circumvented by the legislation.

How so? If a copyright holder alleges a web site has engaged in infringement, the alleged offender has five days to mount a defense. After that time, any financial support for the site could be shut down, including monetary services such as PayPal, as well as ad services. Additionally, the U.S government, if requested by copyright holders, could force search engines and ISPs (internet service providers) to bar access to the selected sites! The proposed laws would even reach outside of U.S jurisdiction. So essentially, web sites and internet users could be criminalised for alleged copyright and IP infringement, without having access to a proper defense.

Advocates of the Acts include Hollywood, the record industry, the ESA (which later dropped their support amid public outcry) and CBS, among others. Detractors and protestors of the bill include Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and many video game studious including Mojang and Epic Games. Major sites such as Google and Wikipedia went dark for a day, in order to protest the bill, and managed to galvanise major public support by informing users of the precise details of the Acts.

This backlash prompted many previous supporters or neutral parties of the Acts to retract their support, including President Obama and the ESA. The creators of the proposed bills also decided to halt the legislation, citing the need for further discussion about reasonable steps to reduce piracy and infringement. They are no less determined to enact legislation to protect the theft and infringement of U.S IP and copyright, but are now aware they cannot ignore the perspective of internet users and web site owners. Many companies and organisations such as Google and the EFF have made it clear they will educate the public on the specific provisions of any proposed bill, negating the possibility of a bill being passed on the rhetoric of protecting U.S copyright alone.

Some argue the Acts were an attempt by arbiters of outdated technologies and gateways, such as the movie and record industry, to control the digital content industry, which is innovating to a much greater degree than they are, and are thus enabling greater numbers of users to access content via legal, digital mediums. There are also claims that the battle against infringement is a convenient cover to enable corporations and government to gain more control over legitimate internet activity. The shutting down of piracy site has prompted some to claim existing legislation is sufficient to battle piracy.

Whatever the case, it makes sense that the discussion over the regulation of digital content on the internet, takes place on the very medium it affects.

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