In protest of the highly controversial PIPA/SOPA bills pending in the US Congress, sites such as Wikipedia imposed a blackout on January 18 while encouraging visitors to voice their rejection of the said bills.

Last January 18, 2012, major websites such as Google and Wikipedia participated in one of the largest online protests ever against the proposed bills PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) in the US Senate and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the US House of Representatives. The protest actions ranged from near-total site blackouts (as was the case with Wikipedia) to banners and logos displayed on the webpages (such as the Stop Censorship ribbon on my very blog, scheduled to run until January 24th). In addition, many of these sites provided more information on the proposed bills as well as providing contact information to local congressmen and senators (for US citizens) and even the US State Department (for those outside the US).

Both bills intend to combat privacy by giving government agencies broad powers to block access to sites that host or share copyright material, allowing sites to be shut down very quickly. In addition, Internet companies and users who aid such pirates either by promoting or accessing such material are subject to harsh fines and penalties.

However, the legislation has been met with harsh criticism from Internet-based companies, who claim that the bills stifle the freedom of Internet users while failing to actually address the issue of piracy. Experts have also stated that the bills’ provisions can seriously jeopardize the integrity and security of the Internet itself, since the proposed measures involve tampering with the DNS (Domain Name System), which assigns site names to IP addresses.

In her recent blog, Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker gave a brilliant analogy of how the proposed bills would cause more harm than good if implemented. Her blog can be accessed by clicking HERE.

Here is an excerpt of her blog, in which she compares a potential target website to a corner store renting movies:

Assume there’s a corner store in your neighborhood that rents movies. But the movie industry believes that some or even all of the videos in that store are unauthorized copies, so that they’re not being paid when people watch their movies. What should be done?

SOPA/PIPA don’t aim at the people trying to get to the store. SOPA/ PIPA don’t penalize or regulate the store itself. SOPA and PIPA penalize us if we don’t block the people trying to get to the store.

The solution under the proposed bills is to make it as difficult as possible to find or interact with the store. Maps showing the location of the store must be changed to hide it(1). The road to the store must be blocked off so that it’s difficult to physically get to there(2). Directory services must unlist the store’s phone number and address(3). Credit card companies(4) would have to cease providing services to the store. Local newspapers would no longer be allowed to place ads for the video store(5). And to make sure it all happens, any person or organization who doesn’t do this is subject to penalties(6). Even publishing a newsletter that tells people where the store is would be prohibited by this legislation(7).

This is what SOPA and PIPA would impose in the online world. It’s very different than targeting the owner of the video store directly. The obligations to made websites hard to find apply to all citizens and businesses. Each one of us is subject to punishment and fines if we don’t fulfill these prohibitions. And, because SOPA/PIPA create a new regulatory structure, we become subject to punishment without the due process protections citizens normally enjoy.

Reaction to the proposed bills has been so scathing that even the White House itself has come out against the bills and has promised to veto further attempts to pass it.

An irony of this legislation is that if made into law, it would resemble the Internet access in countries with repressive regimes such as China, Iran and Syria. In these nations, the government actively controls and censors Internet access to its citizens and the US government has spoken out strongly against these restrictions as the leading nation of the Free World. Not only will passing the bills contradict the values of freedom and openness that the US has always espoused, but it may even embolden more countries to practice policing the Internet and its users with an iron fist.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that the pirates – for whom the bills were intended – will not be affected at all. Any smart pirate can create a new website within hours of his old site getting shut down and resume business from there. Meanwhile, the generally less-technically skilled innocent Internet user is left unable to do much on the Internet and out of luck.

For now, the furor over PIPA/SOPA has put the bills’ journey through the US Congress on hold, with some of the bills’ co-sponsors even backing out after the public outcry. But with many major companies and trade organizations still backing the bills, it will take more than web-based blackouts and crashed sites to discuss this flawed legislation and strike the balance between protecting intellectual property rights and keeping Internet-based media free and open for all.

Most surprisingly, a group of artists, authors, directors, musicians and producers got together to send an open letter to Washington about their concerns with PIPA/SOPA and the need to enact better legislation to combat piracy while protecting Internet user’s rights. The complete letter can be read HERE.

With all that has happened between Washington’s politicians and the Internet generation, Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi summed it up best in these words:

“Politicians are amazing people. They are the last to know what the people really want.”

I’ll be signing off, before I get my blog censored for good.

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