News Column

Websites Blackout Over SOPA

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The number one rule young journalists are taught when starting radio broadcasting is simple: No dead air. Cough into the microphone if you must, but don't allow silence to creep in.

For websites, going offline is the same premise -- a definite faux pax. Despite this, Wikipedia, Reddit and other leading sites are blacking out on Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the legislation which, critics say, will curtail freedom of speech by censoring internet content.

"Imagine you are a merchant selling things and the government could walk into your store, take your cash register without warning, notice or due process and you wouldn't know they had taken it until it was already gone," Nick Farr, an IT consultant who advises start-up internet firms, told Al Jazeera. "That is basically the equivalent of what they are trying to do online."

The White House recently joined founders of the internet and other cyber activists to denounce SOPA -- which it says "reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet".

Andrew McDiarmid, a policy analyst with the Centre for Democracy and Technology who has been following the legislation, called the White House statement a "major development" and a "strong signal" that the legislation "has not been fully examined". Some analysts believe the bill will be killed with the White House's new-found opposition, but others -- including the founder of Wikipedia -- aren't so sure.

"We have no indication that SOPA is fully off the table..." Jimmy Wales tweeted. "We need to send Washington a BIG message." Other media and technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, eBay and AOL have also spoken out against the legislation, although they will not be blacking out in protest. The blackout of Wikipedia's English language site will last 24 hours.

'Rogue' sites

While SOPA is floundering politically, another piece of controversial internet legislation -- the Protect IP Act (PIPA) is still being considered by the US Senate.

Supporters, including the film industry, say the legislation is designed to protect intellectual property rights on the internet by allowing the law enforcement officials to shut down "rogue" websites associated with piracy and copyright infringement.

Michael O'Leary, a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association of America, an industry trade group, called Wikipedia's shutdown part of a campaign of "gimmicks and distortion", distracting from the real problem "which is that foreigners continue to steal the hard work of Americans".

Critics of the legislation charge that definitions are overly broad and the US is mimicking governments, such as China and Iran which censor the internet. Legitimate fears over piracy, critics say, could be used as a smokescreen to take down certain material.

"The requirements that search engines remove certain sites from their results set a dangerous precedent internationally, undermining US advocacy against the use of exactly these same tactics to suppress online free expression," McDiarmid told Al Jazeera.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, and one of SOPA's biggest supporters, said on Friday that he plans to remove the legislation's DNS-block requirement, which would give the Justice Department the power to disappear sites.

How it works

Under proposed legislation, anyone found guilty of streaming copyrighted material more than 10 times within six months could face up to five years in jail. Companies such as PayPal and MasterCard would also be forced to stop sending payments to sites alleged to host pirated content.

Suppose the lawyer for Justin Bieber, a tween singer, found out that a young filmmaker used a 20 second Bieber video clip in a web movie, rather than 16 seconds which is allowed, Farr said, in explaining how the bill could affect content production.

The lawyer simply has to call the FBI or Justice Department to allege piracy and -- without a formal investigation from a judge -- the entire site which hosted the video could be taken down. "In one fell swoop, a start-up company could have its website, funds and earnings all cut-off," Farr said. "The way the law is written, there is no chance to appeal and there is an immediate injunction -- the [take down of a site] can be approved by a magistrate, which is basically a rubber stamp."

Politicians who support the legislation often do not understand basic issues of how the internet works, critics say.

"It is tragic to have policy being made by people who think it is cute to boast about their lack of knowledge of the technology they are regulating," James Boyle, a professor of law at Duke University who studies online issues, told Al Jazeera. "It is scandalous."

In their current forms, the proposed laws undermine the internet's fundamental architecture, Boyle said.

Take www.aljazeera.com, for example. Across the internet -- whether you log on in the US, China or Kenya -- the domain name (or DNS entry) takes the user to the same site. The proposed law could change this basic tenant, creating what Boyle calls a "Tower of Babel problem", making the internet a "fractured" place where "everyone has their own language and no-one can communicate".

Sites which host pirated material are often contained within the same domains as licit content. "There were concerns that entire sites would be blocked -- in other words, disappearing constitutionally protected speech," Boyle said.

Copyright as censorship

The Diebold scandal in 2003 offers an example of how companies can use intellectual property rules as a smokescreen for censorship, critics charge.

Diebold produced electronic voting machines for US elections -- kind of an important job in a democracy. The machines were not working properly. Hackers unearthed a series of 15,000 internal company emails in 2003, showing that company officials knew about the problems and were not owning up.

Two sophomores from Swarthmore College, Nelson Pavolsky and Luke Smith, published the e-mails on their university-hosted website. Diebold sent the university an ultimatum, demanding the site be taken down for copyright infringement, invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The university initially complied.

After a legal and public relations battle, the company decided it would no longer try to stop the web distribution of its memos. But the case raised troubling questions for whistleblowers and freedom of information activists. And SOPA would give companies more power for these kinds of actions, critics say.

"We should hope we don't live in a world where the first recourse of someone who wants to censor someone is to claim copyright infringement," Boyle said.

Analysts worry that SOPA, in its extreme form, was just a political manoeuver -- a way to prepare the public for slightly less severe legislation which includes many of the same tenants.

"The system eventually worked," as the White House and other leading politicians came out against the "disastrous bill", Boyle said. "But many people think the technique was designed to make the next bill look more attractive by comparison."

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