Take Two #15: The Internet Monster

While I feel an urge to pay homage to Chicken Little and run screaming “The sky is falling!” many a news crew has already done that. I don't think it remains any mystery that Seattle's recent white weather has been beautifully disastrous for many businesses, power grids and commuters. Anyone disagree? Didn't think so. I'd rather delve into a smaller headline, the Internet's two new four-letter words. I am, of course, referring to SOPA and PIPA.

SOPA stands for the House's Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA stands for the Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act. Both of these aim to, you guessed it, protect intellectual property from online piracy, something that initially sounds like a very good idea. So what's with all the fuss? Why are so many people actively petitioning and protesting against these acts?

Here's the situation. US laws already crack down on people who pirate copyrighted materials via the Internet. This jargon means that the US already has consequences (very expensive ones) in place for people who upload copyright protected files to or download copyright protected files from the Internet when they themselves do not own the rights to that material. It doesn't matter if the person uploading the file bought that music (or any intellectual property that can be digitized) legitimately. Owning a CD, for example, doesn't give you the rights to use that music in your home movie, your website, or even your boombox if you choose to blast your music in a public place. Sure, these laws are meant to target the big time swindlers and not you or your neighbor, but they can.

There is, however, a massive loophole in these laws: their jurisdiction ends at the US border. Taking advantage of this, nearly all of the pirated material online is hosted elsewhere. From inside the US we can then follow links from US websites to these foreign servers to view the pirated material without the US government being able to do squat about it. This is what SOPA and PIPA are fighting. I know, I know, you're still waiting to hear the bad part. I'm getting there.

The only way to stop people within the US from viewing this content is to cut off our access to it. That's what SOPA and PIPA propose to do. These acts will hold all websites liable for any pirated content either on their site OR on another site connected to the first by a link.

Any content. Any link.

In rebuttal Co-author of PIPA Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) cleverly points out that no online associated business is required to patrol their networks. Yes Senator, this is true, but they neglect to do so at their own risk. Massive websites that rely on user-generated content like Facebook, Wordpress, Reddit, and Wikipedia; ad service providers; web browsers; search engines like Google and Dogpile; and others would be essentially stopped in their tracks. There is simply no way to regulate that much material at all times. And with millions (probably billions) of dollars and even up to five years in prison at risk, it's no surprise that these companies would rather close up shop.

How easy is it to slip up? Well, seeing as SOPA author Sen. Lamar Smith (R-Tx) was just recently caught using a pirated photograph for the background of his website...you get my point. Most of us do things like that all the time. We find an image we like on Google and slap it up on our website or Facebook page. Under SOPA and PIPA not only would we be liable for using that image but Google and Facebook could also be fined or shut down for assisting in the infringement. This may seem like an extreme example, but multiply it by the 800 million active Facebook users or the 2.5 billion searches that are made using Google everyday and suddenly my example starts looking a whole lot more believable.

On the flip side, there is no way for an enforcing body to actually keep up with the growth of the Internet. On average 2011 saw 150,000 new websites registered everyday. That's over 104 every minute. Keep in mind that this enforcing body would have to patrol domestic and foreign websites to see just which US websites were linking to foreign sites with pirated content.

Stealing is bad, but the continuing push for this kind of both over and under-kill legislation only further proves that the people in charge do not understand the monster that is the Internet. It's slipperier than water and grows faster than those terrifying sponge animals. There isn't a way to cage it without extreme censorship that is sure to come with a nasty backlash, but there is a way to shape it.

Stay tuned for next time when I'll continue into the realm of piracy and what it is actually doing to the industries it affects.

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