Wikipedia went offline for a day in January to protest against two laws currently under consideration in the US. We ask what it would mean if these laws are passed
On 18 January 2012 Wikipedia took its English-language website offline in protest against US anti-piracy laws that it claims threatens freedom of speech. If passed, the legislation contained within these laws would force internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines to remove any websites that host or link to copyrighted material without permission.
Two bills are currently under consideration in the US House of Representatives and US Senate: the Protect Intellectual Property Act (Pipa) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa). At the very heart of these bills is legislation that, its critics claim, endangers a free and open internet that sits above political concerns.
Like China and Iran
The two bills seek to tackle online piracy of films, music and other copyrighted material. Material stored on computers outside the US would be blocked and removed from search results.
If the bills are successful, the US internet could be censored in a similar way to services in China and Iran. At their starkest, Sopa and Pipa propose that anyone found guilty of illegally accessing copyrighted material 10 times in six months should go to jail.
Supporters of Sopa read like a Who’s Who of American entertainment companies: CBS, Comcast/NBC Universal, Disney, EMI, ESPN, Marvel, Sony Music Entertainment, Time Warner, Warner Music and Universal Music to name 10 from a list that currently totals 129.
The White House has suggested it is against aspects of Sopa and Pipa. In a statement, it said: “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.”
Stopping copyright infringement online is undoubtedly an issue, but these bills fail to deal with it adequately. If passed, the legislation would give private companies the ability to sue any website that failed to filter out and remove copyrighted content.
Furthermore, the US government and corporations could block any site, US-based or not, for containing just one infringing link. So, in effect, sites such as Youtube, Facebook and even Computeractive could have to censor what users post or risk being shut down.
Critics worry that the bills are too broad and badly worded, potentially giving copyright holders excessive powers to censor what citizens can find on the web.
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