As digital technologies increasingly dominate personal and commercial activities, the issue of copyright protection becomes ever more controversial with stakeholder groups lining up to protect their interests. In a row dubbed by some (but denied by Wikipedia) as a clash between Hollywood and old media, and Silicon Valley, the US Congress has been attempting to enforce copyrights on the Internet, by proposing new legislative controls on internet service providers of websites that offer access to pirated material. The Congress Act, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate bill, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), have focused on targeting copyright infringers online and imposing a series of harsh penalties. The Bills would force ISPs to block non-U.S. websites accused of having infringing material, meaning sites from other countries might not be available in the United States. SOPA and PIPA are attempts to deal with the problem of online filesharing by granting powers to close down websites that are making material, such as films, music and television programmes, available without the permission of the rights holder.
In December, a group of influential technology figures, including founders of Twitter, Google and YouTube, published an open letter to lawmakers saying that the legislation would enable Internet regulation and censorship on par with the government regulation in China and Iran. They argue that ISPs should not be required to police the internet. Last month, an article in the Stanford Law Review described the bills as “an unprecedented, legally sanctioned assault on the Internet’s critical technical infrastructure”. However, the backers of the legislation, including the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA), the major movie studios and television networks, most major book publishers and several ISPs, say that without the legislation at least 2.2 million industry jobs would be at risk. Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp, which backs SOPA and PIPA, equated copying a film with publishing pornography and hate speech.
The White House issued a statement saying, “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”
However, reacting to the pressure it is under it added, “We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”
Wikipedia has led the high profile protest against the bill by making their site unavailable for only one day, although allowing access to background information about their protest. In a blogpost, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said that the company was supporting the protest because “we think there’s a good way forward that doesn’t cause collateral damage to the web”. Craigslist, the popular online classifieds service, has suspended its US sites, while other websites, including Reddit, WordPress, Flickr, Twitpic and hundreds of others have agreed to support the day of action.
SOPA has been halted, at least temporarily, following opposition from the White House. However, Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, argued that the day of action still needed to go ahead. Unlike Wikipedia, which is a not-for-profit, Google and Facebook have a huge number of shareholders to appease and are not blacking out their sites. Google has, however, altered its home and search pages to alert people to the blackout day. This change is only visible in the United States, but you can read their argument here.
Jimmy Wales told his Twitter followers: “We have no indication that SOPA is fully off the table. We need to send Washington a BIG message.”
IB style questions
1. Define the following terms:
2. Explain the role and importance of intellectual property rights for digital businesses.
3. Analyse the conflicting interests of the internet stakeholders, in a clash defined as ‘Hollywood and old media versus Silicon Valley’.
4. Evaluate the impact on the business objectives and strategies of ISPs and search engines, such as AOL and Google, if the proposed SOPS and PIPA bills were passed.
Students investigate the arguments between various stakeholders in the Internet, beginning with the sources identified below and produce a report:
- summarising the contrasting arguments for and against SOPA and PIPA
- analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each set of arguments
- suggesting alternative measures to protect copyright and preventing online piracy, such as the OPEN Act.
- evaluating the impact on the strategies and business models of ISPs and search engines, if the bills were passed