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Breaking Down the Internet Censorship Debate

by Nathan Taft | University of Washington

F Posted in: News and Politics P Posted on: April 18, 2012
acta protest Image Courtesy of Flickr, rimvisi

With the advent of torrenting in 2004, we’ve seen an uptick in the piracy of media and software. According to the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), $58 billion per year in revenue is lost due to piracy, although the exact amount is uncertain and could be substantially smaller. Regardless, it is clear that something is needed to combat illegal downloading, as current measures are largely ineffective. Yet many people are worried that the proposed cure could have a side effect potentially worse than the disease itself.

In 2011, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House were brought forward by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Lamar Smith (R-TX), respectively. Both bills supposedly sought “to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.” Simply stated, their primary purpose was to combat online piracy.

Opponents of PIPA and SOPA, however, strongly felt that those bills opened the door to internet censorship by allowing companies to sue and shut down certain websites for hosting illegal content, even if only a small portion of their users were linking to questionable items.

A wave of public outcry, headed by internet behemoths Google and Wikipedia — the latter even blacking out their whole website in protest for a period of time — led to the indefinite postponement of both bills in mid-January of this year.

In the wake of this, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and huge proponent of both PIPA and SOPA Cary Sherman argued that PIPA and SOPA were fraudulently equated to censorship. He believes that the bills were unjustly postponed due to “misinformation” promoted by Google and Wikipedia. According to him, the bills would have been used to crack down on illegal downloading, not for censorship.

Opponents remain suspicious, countering that sites where political protests and free expression are the main matters discussed could be shut down even if only 1 percent of the subject matter was illegitimate. It would force websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit to constantly police their users’ content for copyright infringement or risk being sued and could make it extremely difficult for any start up search engines or social media companies to succeed.

This would be accomplished by making it illegal to do business with the website by hosting ads, linking to it in a search engine, or even by listing it on a website. This effectively makes it possible for the government to censor the internet and shut down sites it deems in violation of the vague wording of SOPA or PIPA.

More recently, in the international arena, the debate over the possible passage of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is still in progress. Similar to SOPA and PIPA, ACTA’s proposed purpose is to stop piracy and protect copyrighted works, while opponents maintain that it will violate privacy and free speech. And unlike SOPA and PIPA, ACTA might still become law. It has already been signed by quite a few countries — including the United States — and when it was brought to Europe for ratification, it sparked massive protests. Only time will tell whether or not this bill will pass.

As if we needed yet another acronym to confuse us (even more recently than ACTA) comes CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence and Security Protection Act. Depending on which side of the debate you fall, CISPA will either destroy privacy and free speech online under the guise of copyright and national security, or defend American’s networks and intellectual property. Congress will vote concerning CISPA on April 23.

It is apparent that the larger issue of censorship and the internet remains up in the air. The supporters of internet piracy are few and far between; most people on both sides of the argument agree that something needs to be done about its rampant spread, but it is the methods by which piracy should be regulated that is clearly the point of contention.

The problem with most of the methods that were brought forward so far is that they are vaguely worded and bring with them the concern that they might limit people’s free speech. Opponents fear that if you make the wide scale shut down of websites possible, it will open the door to shutting down websites simply for having dissenting opinions to the majority. For many, the internet is one of the few locations left for truly open discussion and information.

Whether or not the internet should — or even can, with groups like Anonymous and others working against the government — be regulated is not an easy question and isn’t a problem likely to be solved anytime soon.

Nathan Taft Nathan Taft Nathan Taft is a NGJ Staff Writer, currently studying Political Science and Communications at the University of Washington in Seattle. He writes a political column entitled "Husky Perspective" for the Opinion section of The Daily of University of Washington.

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