Internet Under Firewall

The Internet can sometimes seem like a lawless place. Indeed, many things some people consider to be wrong can be expediently accessed on the Internet – theft, violence, immoral sex, you name it, it’s on there.

But, fundamentally, the Internet is not lawless; every year Oswego State students must pass a quiz about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, and many are still caught illegally downloading copyrighted material. Naturally, those companies making movies and music aren’t happy with the state of the Internet. Most American citizens would not dream of walking into a store and blatantly stealing merchandise, yet they take movies and music as easily as downloading the latest iTunes update.

Yet, the law also includes exemptions for big-name websites such as Google and Facebook when they are accused of allowing posts including to copyright-infringing content or linking to sites that distribute such content. Under the DMCA, they are protected from legal action, but only if they promptly remove the content or links.

That’s eminently fair. How could a site as large as Google or Facebook provide such a vast array of content if they were forced to examine each search result under a microscope to check for the contagion of infringement? Exemptions like these have allowed sites room to grow and experiment with the Internet, and to sincerely address their venial sins after the fact.

If we’re going to make tasty virtual omelets, we’re going to have to crack a few copyright eggs.

These websites have been exceedingly cooperative with movie and music giants on anti-piracy. And those giants have always shown them their support in return. That is, until now.

Big-money Hollywood studios, TV networks and fat-cat trial lawyers are pushing a bill for which they have purchased bipartisan support, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Its intentions seem noble, protecting the jobs of millions of Americans in the movie and television industries against copyright infringement and theft. What the bill plans to do is to give government the right to shut down illegal distribution websites and to block banks from funding them and service providers to stop doing business with them. Domain name companies could be made to cease doing business as well, removing any way to get to the site.

Not surprisingly, Internet businesses see this bill as censorship. Because it is. While giants such as Google and YouTube aren’t likely to be injured, the very principle of the matter is removing the freedoms of the Internet. They believe that SOPA violates privacy rights and might possibly lead to cybersecurity issues.

Google’s Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman, describes this removal of URLs as censorship. Liability issues are lighting a fire under search engines and other popular websites with the implication that they may be sued simply for providing a link to suspect content.

China is an example of what will happen under SOPA. The Chinese government actively maintains a firewall, blocking any websites they find to be in opposition of their views. While SOPA does not seem to desire this type of censorship, where will the line be drawn? Will the government shut down websites over spam bots and foolish users? Are these changes going to be made by humans or by machines that mindlessly spot irregularities and automatically target innocent websites?

Schmidt is right; SOPA is censorship. While planning on targeting foreign websites, it will no doubt affect innocent American startups and search engines.

What is interesting is that this bill has brought together many feuding parties in the name of safety or censorship. Democrats, Republicans and every lawyer from coast to coast has spoken in favor of SOPA. Conservatives and progressives alike have joined together with Internet companies who sue each other every day in protest against the bill. SOPA is a strict bill with language too vague to provide answers to the questions it seeks to address. If the question is: how do we prevent the Internet from becoming a den of thieves, then the answer SOPA provides is to burn the house down. Surely there are more precise restrictions than that.

If SOPA is passed then we all will be affected by it. Fighting censorship is one thing the Internet is very good at, and that is what its users should be doing to protect it.