SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, Ley Sinde, HADOPI: no time for complacency

In common with many other equally iconic sites, was taken down yesterday as a warning of what might happen to many perfectly legitimate websites if proposed legislation currently before the House of Representatives and the Senate were to reach the American statute book: public awareness of the dangers induced by SOPA and PIPA, which has been woefully low to date, will perhaps be increased when users find their favourite sites, such as this blog or Wikepedia, are not available and they realise that freedom of expression online is not something that can be taken for granted.

SOPA strike screen
In common with other major sites such as Wikipedia and Reddit, was blacked out all day on January 18 to warn against the risk of legislation sponsored by the entertainment industry resulting in the silencing of sites such as this one (code forked from a Github version put in the public domain by Zachary Johnson.)

Direct censorship involving manipulation of the domain name system which lies at the heart of the Internet is what is normally associated with the world’s most illiberal regimes—Iran and China foremost among them—not the United States. Yet that is precisely what SOPA and PIPA are setting out to do:

An excellent video by Kirby Anderson explaining the issues underlying SOPA and PIPA (reproduced under the terms of a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license).

The entertainment industry, meanwhile, is defending its fast-melting cash cow by putting forward a fundamentally flawed argument. The following series of tweets from Mr Rupert Murdoch, the Chairman of News International, whom I have already discussed in this site, is revealing of the elementary misconception underlying the repressive lobby’s case.

His initial tweet was in reaction the recent news that the Obama administration was distancing itself from the provisions of the SOPA bill as it then stood tabled:

Rupert Murdoch tweet 1

He then went on to state that he that he considers even aggregating or linking to stories to be piracy:

Rupert Murdoch tweet 2

Google rapidly reacted, stating:

This is just nonsense. Last year we took down 5 million infringing web pages from our search results and invested more than $60 million in the fight against bad ads… We fight pirates and counterfeiters every day.

Yet the subtleties of this were lost on Mr Murdoch. In his next tweet, he seemed to equate streaming with links simply appearing in a Google search:

Rupert Murdoch tweet 3

The issues underlying yesterday’s SOPA strike are not new, but the blackout, which was fairly widely reported in the press, has brought them to the fore in an unprecedented way. The tech sector has proved pretty unanimous in its opposition, not just to the detail of the measures contained in SOPA and PIPA, but also to the idea of allowing censorship of the web in any form.

It is often forgotten, however, that the issue is a global one. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out:

SOPA and PIPA are really only the tip of the iceberg. The same forces behind these domestic U.S. laws have continued to both push for other states to pass similar domestic laws, as well as to secretly negotiate international trade agreements that would force signatory nations to conform to the same legal standards. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Ley Doring (Mexico), Ley Sinde (Spain), Ley Hadopi (France) are only a few examples.

Ultimately, the issue is this: the emergence of the Internet has made the business model on which the entertainment industry made billions of dollars for years obsolete—and it is prepared to destroy it to postpone the consequences for as long as possible. Yet censorship, in any circumstances, should be available only as a last resort, as part of a proportionate procedure and subject to due process—a basic principle incompatible with delegating it to a private entity.

Rarely has a battle of titans implied such high stakes: in the fifteen years or so since it became ubiquitous, the Internet has empowered individual citizens in an unprecedented way, giving them instantaneous access to a range and depth of information in a hitherto unthinkable manner. Yesterday’s blackout went long way to demonstrating that new-won freedoms can never be taken for granted, even in the world’s richest nations and greatest democracies. SOPA and PIPA’s sponsored have not laid down their arms. EFF makes the point succinctly:

Unfortunately, PIPA and SOPA are still very much alive. According to Open Congress, there are still 33 co-sponsors of PIPA. With the Senate bringing PIPA to the floor next week, we cannot expect the content groups to give up without a fight. The entertainment industry is already threatening to cut off campaign donations to President Obama’s re-election campaign. Chief lobbyist of the MPAA, Chris Dodd, also lashed out at the blackout yesterday, saying it was a “gimmick,” and even “dangerous.”

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is well on the way to coming into force. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Ley Sinde (Spain) and Hadopi (France) are all in force and all, in different ways, directly threaten the Internet as a free, neutral way of communicating—that should not be compromised neither for mercantile profit nor for political gain. Should France’s President Sarkozy gain re-election in France’s presidential elections in May, or should Mr Obama fail to be re-elected at the year end, these pressures can be expected to gain strength. Now is hardly the time to fall into complacency.