SOPA/PIPA and WIKI – the new “SIT IN”

The recent buzz across the internet yesterday was the equivalent of a 21st century “Sit In” as websites and internet users demonstrated against SOPA and PIPA.  SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, which is related to the recently (October 26, 2011) proposed legislation [H.R. 3261] introduced by the Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) who was also a sponsor of the recently enacted American Invents Act.  The Bill was originally presented to the House Judiciary Committee and builds on the similar PRO-IP Act of 2008 and the corresponding Senate bill [S.B. 1867], the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).

The proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation (the Bills) were designed to increase the remedies available to copyright holders and to increase the liability of copyright infringers.  The Bills provide for enhanced criminal and civil remedies including the right to obtain monetary damages, seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement and to stop online commerce with those sites. Depending on who makes the request, the court order may bar electronic commerce with any website accused of facilitating the infringement including the ability to stop online advertising networks and payment facilitators from conducting business with the infringing website, barring search engine links, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The bills would also criminalize unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison for ten such infringements within six months. The bills also grants immunity to ISPs that voluntarily take action against websites, and provides for damages against false accusations from copyright holders.

Supporters of the bills include lobbyists for Hollywood, the Pharmacy Companies, media firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They claim it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites. To support their claim, the supporters cite Google’s $500 million settlement with the Department of Justice for its involvement with ads targeted to consumers offering prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

Opponents of the bill claim that the bill would violate the First Amendment, would effectively create a censorship ban upon the internet, will cripple the free flowing information aspects of the Internet and will threaten whistle-blowing and other free speech activities.

The results of yesterdays sit in was statistically amazing, the protests included blackouts of portions of Wikipedia and Google’s website, online petitions and blogging related activities.  As a result of the protests it has been reported that 162 million people experienced the blackout at Wikipedia and another 8 million took Wikipedia’s suggestion and looked up their congressional reps from their site. Google reported that an estimated 4.5 million people had signed its petition asking lawmakers to reject the SOFA/PIPA legilstation.  Twitter said 2.4 million SOPA-related tweets were made.  WordPress reports that at least 25,000 WordPress blogs joined the SOPA and PIPA protest by blacking out their blogs entirely, and an additional 12,500 had posted a “Stop Censorship” ribbon.

While the outcome is yet to be determined, they have certainly illustrated the power the internet can have on the dissemination of information, something which may be lost if the internet becomes censored.  In addition, the information gathering aspect of the internet was additionally illustrated when the one reader targeted a sponsor of the bill and reported that a website operated for him is allegedly using copyright material in violation of the proposed legislation.