*Disclaimer: The following post was written for the class blog for my middle school students. I’m more than happy to have feedback or corrections, but be aware that I am not attempting to provide a legally or technically detailed account of the bills and their potential implications.*
In class today, I gave you a heads up that English-language Wikipedia and other sites would be going black tomorrow to protest SOPA and PIPA. (I suspect that students’ lack of access to Wikipedia would delight some teachers, but that’s another post for another day.) Once the general cries of outrage subsided, we talked a bit about why Wikipedia was protesting these bills. There are lots of thoughtful, detailed posts about SOPA and PIPA on the web, but I couldn’t find a concise summary that would be accessible to you, so I’m going to attempt one.
SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill in the House of Representatives, and PIPA (Protect IP Act), a bill in the Senate, were written to try to address the issue of internet piracy. Piracy occurs when people post or sell content that isn’t theirs to use under US law. Lots of different actions can constitute piracy, from using an artist’s song in a video without their permission to making bootleg copies of DVDs.
Under current laws, if someone posts a copyrighted work without permission on a site, the site isn’t liable (they can’t be fined or successfully sued) if they take down the content as soon as they are notified about it. Some people feel that additional tools are needed to fight piracy, which is why they are supporting these bills. Some companies are also supporting these bills because piracy costs them money, and they think these bills might change that.
(A quick side note- Issues related to piracy and sharing have been around for a long time, but as a result of the growth of the internet, they’ve become more pressing, especially for people and companies who make money by selling copyrighted works. Think, for example, about where you get most of the music you listen to and whether you pay to access it or stream it for free. Artists have different views about what copyright laws should be in the US. Some choose to license their art using something called Creative Commons licenses, which allow people to share artists’ work for free, so long as they follow certain guidelines.)
Many of the sites that host pirated content are outside the reach of US laws, so the government can’t go after them directly. Under the proposed laws, companies could sue search engines and other sites that host or link to content from these sites. Originally, the bills contained provisions that if a website was found to contain pirated content, it would have its DNS blocked. That means that if you typed in the URL of the site, you’d be redirected to a page that said that the site was being investigated for possible violations of the law. That’s been taken out now, but companies could still sue sites for hosting or linking to pirated content. There are also other provisions in the bills, such as allowing internet service providers to block certain sites, and some people are worried that internet security might be harmed as people try to find new ways to access these blocked sites.
To avoid violating these proposed laws, sites claim they would have to monitor every post to their sites. Imagine if Twitter or YouTube had to approve every tweet or video to make sure it didn’t violate copyright restrictions. These sites, and others like them, are arguing that this would be virtually impossible to do and still allow people to have the kind of free information sharing they expect and enjoy.
So, why are Wikipedia and other sites “blacking out” their content tomorrow? They’re doing it as a reminder of how important the content on the internet is for many of our lives and as a way of showing that they oppose these bills and what might happen if they become law. If the bills pass, Wikipedia might be affected if users post content that they don’t have permission to use and companies sue Wikipedia. Wikipedia and other sites don’t support violating US copyright law, although some would like to see it changed, but they disagree that the current bills are the right way to go about it. You could think of blacking the site out as a way of going on digital strike.
Other sites, such as Google, also oppose SOPA, but they have decided not to black out their sites tomorrow. Instead, they will provide links to information about SOPA on their site and the reasons they oppose it. Tomorrow in class we’ll talk about whether you think Wikipedia’s strategy, Google’s strategy, or some combination is the best way to approach opposing legislation with which they disagree.