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Thought Police: The Threat to Internet Freedom

Beyond SOPA/PIPA, Internet censorship continues.

On January 18, tens of millions of Web sites across the Internet shuttered or went black for 24 hours in protest of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), congressional bills that would have effectively put a clamp on the free and open Internet in the name of “stopping piracy.”

The blackout was the biggest online protest in the history of the internet; participants included individual blogs as well as behemoths like Google, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Tumblr. The argument was that the bills as drafted did nothing to stop piracy, and everything to concentrate the Internet into the hands of huge corporations. Opponents warned that should either bill be passed, our freedoms on the Internet would be censored, and our experience more akin to those living in oppressive countries like China and Egypt.

“Supporters claim the bills target ‘rogue’ foreign websites that encourage online infringement,” wrote Internet advocacy group  Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “but their real effect would be to slow down job-creating tech innovations at home and create devastating new tools for silencing legitimate speech all around the web.” Most of Congress appeared to support SOPA and PIPA, barring four senators—Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Rand Paul R-Kentucky; and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas—who promised to filibuster if SOPA passed.

For now, they don’t have to. After the outpouring of protest (and President Obama’s lack of support), the bills were shelved. SOPA creator Lamar Smith, who was  caught violating some of the tenets of his own bill on his Web site, withdrew the bill, telling Reuters, “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy.” Participants and organizations who’d opposed the bill cheered. An email sent from Fight for the Future read, “Freedom is winning.”

But one part of EFF’s missive proved prescient: that propositions like SOPA and PIPA “silence legitimate speech. Rightsholders, ISPs, or the government could shut down sites with accusations of infringement, and without real due process.”

While the Internet was celebrating the blacklist bills' shift to the backburner, the government was doing just that. In a power move that felt like a slap on the face to all the people who stood against SOPA/PIPA, on January 19, the FBI seized the domain of super-popular filesharing site MegaUpload, accusing its purveyors of “massive worldwide online piracy of numerous types of copyrighted works.”

MegaUpload had been a target of corporate-protector organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for what they called widespread copyright infringement on the site—despite cooperative efforts by MegaUpload to stop said copyright infringement. Organizations like MPAA and RIAA tend to put forth the artists they represent as the poor victims of piracy, yet MegaUpload appeared to have many artists’ full support.

Just a week earlier, the site released a promotional video with a jingle sung by superstars of the pop world like Kanye West, the Black Eyed Peas’ and Kim Kardashian. (It was later revealed at the time of the site’s seizure that Alicia Keys’ husband, the highly regarded hip-hop producer Swizz Beats, was in talks to become MegaUpload’s CEO.) As DSL Reports points out, MegaUpload “had also been building a system that directly compensated artists. The crime wasn't conspiracy -- it was cutting out the RIAA/MPAA middlemen. Then flaunting it.”

The premise that Internet piracy is harming American workers and that bills like SOPA “protect the products and jobs that rightly belong to American innovators,” as Lamar Smith put it, is patently untrue. EFF has done comprehensive work to discredit the smokescreen that blacklist bills put forth about the economics of artists and piracy, most notably in this essential report. Related to the arts industry, it says:

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