SOPA: Legitimising censorship?

Online goliaths band together to protest SOPA’s threat to business, innovation and civil liberties.


Online encyclopedia Wikipedia shut down its English-language site in protest of the proposed legislations [EPA]

New York, New York – It would have been the most expensive political ad buy in the history of the world. Google’s search engine, the most visited website in the world, displays a black block over its logo. Wikipedia, the sixth most visited site globally, has disabled its English-language service. This unprecedented action to oppose legislation under consideration in the US Congress signals the importance of the private sector in Internet policy – and it won’t stop here.

Private companies are almost entirely responsible for your ability to read this article. The text travelled through a purchased operating system, over an enterprise office network, through privately-owned wires and fibre optic cables, and finally reached the privately-run “cloud” service in which it was composed. If you’re overseas from Al Jazeera’s servers, the message also travelled through privately-owned undersea cables-the bedrock of international communication and finance.

Many experts, including Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard and the leaders of the MIT Media Lab, have described in detail the threat to free speech, innovation, and the technology business posed by the legislation: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Most people, however, learned of the controversy through today’s online demonstrations, in which the online goliaths of our day have filled the picket lines.

The Big Deal

SOPA and PIPA are designed to stop people from illegally downloading copyrighted content or engaging in other violations of US intellectual property rights, including access to cheaper prescription drugs from abroad. Websites on which people share massive amounts of copyrighted material, such as the prominent website The Pirate Bay, are largely beyond the reach of US law today. Supporters of SOPA wish to change that.

Opponents of the legislation, many of whom note that copyright protection is a laudable goal, object to the law’s specific provisions, arguing that it would give rights holders broad power to target entire websites without due process. SOPA targets so-called “intermediaries” rather than those posting or downloading copyrighted material.

Thus, if a user posts copyrighted material on YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, or any other of the platforms that facilitate the thriving online ecosystem we have today, those sites could be targeted and judged by vague criteria. If a site is found to be at fault, the original law would have provided for a practically complete block of the website. (SOPA sponsor and Texas Republican Representative Lamar Smith said on January 13 that he plans to remove that specific provision, which would have targeted the Domain Name System (DNS) record for the site.)

The focus on entire websites stands in contrast to the existing practice, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which allows copyright holders to issue take-down notices for specific, infringing pieces of content. This is the law behind the removal of YouTube clips and other content used without authorisation from rights holders. Allowing large media companies to target entire websites, opponents argue, would affect non-infringing content and slow innovation in online start-ups with user-generated content. If one dispute could undermine the enterprise, why would an investor support an open site?

Wikipedia’s excellent article explained the matter on Tuesday afternoon:

Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites … Opponents say that it violates the First Amendment, is Internet censorship, will cripple the Internet, and will threaten whistle-blowing and other free speech actions.

The Private Sector’s Role

At first, the SOPA debate was a rather typical story of big business versus activists, with Congress in the middle. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose chairman Chris Dodd has called the demonstrations “dangerous” and an “abuse of power,” is one of the driving forces behind the bill. Other supporters include virtually every major traditional media company and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Initial objections, predictably enough, came from civil libertarians and human rights advocates, who feared that the law could be used by domestic and international forces to stifle free expression. The eventual list of opponents, however, is like a mirror image of the traditional media companies behind SOPA. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are just a few of the major new media companies fighting the legislation. The respected computer security firm Kaspersky Lab left the Business Software Alliance – a group representing many of the world’s largest software makers – over its support for the bill.

Though civil liberties, human rights, and democracy promotion (not to mention constitutional scholars) have good reason to oppose SOPA, business interests rather than ideals fuel the opposition. The Wikipedia blackout is perhaps the sole prominent principled stand. As a collective of volunteers, Wikipedia’s editors are rare in that future risk to profits has no place in their calculations.

Instituting a widespread censorship project undermines the US State Department’s advocacy for Internet freedom worldwide and gives legitimacy to other countries who censor political content.

The companies on each side of the debate have helped build the online media environment. The difference of opinion is based in different models of production and, over all, future profits. For traditional media companies without major stakes in online intermediaries, stronger protections help ensure their intellectual property keeps producing revenue. For the big players without catalogues of old material to sell, and for whom the open forum is a major draw, the potential for censorship or a chilling effect is a major business risk.

Balancing Public and Private

Many might be uncomfortable with the prominence of business interests in policy making that shapes our ability to communicate – but these interests are a fact of life. As Tim Wu argued in The Master Switch, the history of communications and media in the United States is one of soaring innovation and constricting corporate dominance. Some dreamedof cyberspace as a realm where corporate interests and political coercion would be frustrated by the openness of Internet protocols, but that openness is still contingent on the infrastructure of private companies.

Private stakeholders are at play in every major Internet policy question. On the question of those undersea cables that make the Internet global, the EastWest Institute and the IEEE have convened stakeholders from undersea cable operators, financial services companies, and other sectors in an on-going effort to develop and push for solutions that make the infrastructure more stable.

In every conceivable area of Internet-related policy, there will be commercial interests. In the case of SOPA, the role of Congress is to decide what is best for the public overall, even if the loudest voices in the room are companies on either side. Those voices are legitimate, but lawmakers must recognise that the Internet is a civic space as well as a commercial one.

The United States must also recognise that its policies regarding online content reach far beyond its borders. Though a US law may not successfully coerce behaviour overseas, instituting a widespread censorship project undermines the US State Department’s advocacy for Internet freedom worldwide and gives legitimacy to other countries who censor political content.

The Internet, like the environment, knows no borders, but that doesn’t mean one country can’t pollute it.

Graham Webster is a public policy and communications officer at the EastWest Institute and an independent analyst on East Asian politics and technology.

Follow him on Twitter: @gwbstr

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.