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Will the Future of the Internet Be Decided By Hollywood?

In the US the cultural industries are pushing two bills before officials intended to strengthen their ability to combat online piracy. But opponents claim the proposed legislation amounts to Internet censorship, threatening the very American tradition of freedom of expression.

by Guillaume Ledit On November 15, 2011

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Hollywood lobbyists are pressuring the US Congress to pass a major legislative reform, which would provide for the systematic filtering and blocking of sites suspected of encouraging piracy of copyrighted works. This Wednesday, November 16, the members of the House of Representatives will gather to consider the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) bill.

(This legislation) would mean the end of the Internet as we know it.

Democrat Zoe Lofgren, the elected representative for Silicon Valley, spoke of the “many prominent human rights activists and Internet engineers (who) have voiced concerns” which she believes “deserve serious consideration”. The US Senate is already engaged in debate surrounding the proposed Protect IP Act. SOPA and Protect IP are two separate bills, but the objective of both is to strengthen yet more measures to protect copyright.

The “death penalty” for Internet sites

The movement to remove websites that are allegedly in breach of copyright has come a long way. In 2010, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) bill included a provision obliging domain name management services (registrars) to suspend access to sites that had been judged to be violating copyright. Having not been adopted at the time, COICA has now resurfaced under the more obvious title of the Protect-IP Act.

Currently under discussion in the Senate, the bill would create a procedure to make a targeted site simply disappear. Once a court order is issued against a site that “facilitates” illegal downloading, the law allows for the intervention of a whole range of actors. Domain name registrars and service providers would be required to block access to the site. The site would still be accessible via its IP address, but no longer via a traditional web address like http://xxxxx.com.

Search engines would be obliged to remove the site from their search results, while financial intermediaries like PayPal and advertisers would be forced to put a stop to their dealings with the affected site.

The intention of the bill is to strengthen the legislative framework protecting intellectual property at all costs. According to some law professors, including Stanford’s Mark Lemley, the bill imposes a “death sentence” on websites. In a letter to the US Congress, legal professors underlined the unconstitutional aspect of the bill. They believe preventing access to a domain name without allowing the possibility for the accused person to defend themselves poses some problems with regards to the right to due process. In addition, while both legal and illegal content can exist under the same domain name, access to the site would be removed entirely. This would appear to threaten the sacrosanct First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which enshrines the right to freedom of expression. The law professors conclude:

Passage of the Act will compromise our ability to defend the principle of the single global Internet – the Internet that looks the same to, and allows free and unfettered communication between, users located in Boston and Bucharest, free of locally-imposed censorship regimes. As such, it may represent the biggest threat to the Internet in its history.

The joint intervention of a number of different actors in order to block access to the Wikileaks website in December 2010 can be analyzed as an example of the kind of action the Protect-IP Act would provide for. In a recent article in Daedelus, Yochai Benkler, Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, was alarmed by the legislature’s desire to attack all of a site’s content, and not just the content that had been deemed illegal. What he terms “the public-private partnerships” leading to Internet censorship represent to him a threat to freedom of expression.

War of the lobbyists

Stopping piracy is also the aim of the SOPA bill. Seen by some as a watered down version of the Protect-IP Act, it was introduced in the House of Representatives in late October. It enjoyed bipartisan support thanks in part to the close relationship between House Democrats and Hollywood lobbyists. The latter were responsible for the new pet name given to SOPA, the E-PARASITE Act.

In recent years organisations have been working to strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights on the Internet and in so doing, protect their business model. Organisations like the National Music Publishers’ Association, the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America and even the US Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents of the project are a heterogeneous group. Given the broad scope of sites concerned by the threat posed to the architecture of the network (via the DNS), added to concerns about freedom of expression, there are no shortage of reasons for opponents to get involved. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an NGO campaigning for freedom of expression on the Internet, is at the forefront of the criticism, describing the new law as “disastrous.” Other groups, such as the Consumer Electronics Association or the NetCoalition, have sent a letter to officials warning them against the potential negative effects of the law on growth and the economy.

The big Internet companies, previously recalcitrant about getting involved in the legislative process, have also spoken out. Google threatened to leave the US Chamber of Commerce, and a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs went to Washington to express their discontent. For the first time web entrepreneurs are entering the legislative battlefield, a fight described in some sections of the US media as “Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood “.

As it stands it’s difficult to know whether the geeks will prevail against the cultural industries.

Image Credit: Flickr CC Christopher Dombres

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