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Internet: the fight for its future

KARTHIK SUBRAMANIAN
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The ‘Stop Online Piracy Act' that was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, and has been debated ever since, has almost all the leading Internet technology providers up in arms. ‘Stop Censorship' logos are appearing on all leading websites and the issues being discussed could have far-reaching consequences, writes KARTHIK SUBRAMANIAN

A RIPPLE EFFECT Will the Stop Online Piracy Act curb Internet freedom not just in the U.S. but around the world? Photo: Reuters
A RIPPLE EFFECT Will the Stop Online Piracy Act curb Internet freedom not just in the U.S. but around the world? Photo: Reuters

I t is called the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act' (SOPA). But the proposed legislature that is being debated in the U.S. Congress for a month now, backed by major U.S. corporations, including the movie studios, has polarised opinion. Critics are calling their fight against SOPA a fight for the future of the Internet.

Though the legislature will apply only to the U.S., it could have a ripple effect all over the globe because of the amount of data that resides physically in servers within the country.

Third parties, such as payment gateways or content-hosting services, fear that the legislature not only makes them liable in case of copyright violations, worse, it also makes them potential victims of trolling.

Things don't look hunky-dory in the U.S. technology scene ever since the SOPA came up for debate in the U.S. House of Representatives, even as the U.S. Senate took up the ‘Protect IP' bill. The contents are essentially the same.

In the past month, the ‘Stop Censorship' movement has gained ground across the Web. Several websites have voluntarily placed the ‘stop censorship' labels over their own logos. Mashable, the website tracking social media trends, in an info graphic put out earlier this week, likened the SOPA to other draconian laws around the world (for instance, in countries such as China and Syria), that could curb a free Internet.

While Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo have issued full page advertisements in leading U.S. dailies vehemently opposing the legislature (Google chairman Eric Schmidt went as far as calling it ‘draconian'), other sites have done things more dramatic. Popular blogging service Tumblr blacked out words from its feed to send out a message to the lawmakers.

Is opposing piracy bad?

Can a legislature that purportedly targets online piracy be so bad? Well, looks can deceive and so can titles of proposed legislations.

What SOPA, in its current form, intends to do is not just block the websites carrying copyright-infringed content, but also go for the jugular in a way similar to how the U.S. Government dealt with Wikileaks — cut funding.

The immediate targets on the cross hairs of the Act could be the most popular websites out there. From Facebook to Twitter, every website that thrives on user-generated content could fall under the purview of the legislature.

But that is not all. Critical Internet movements such as the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) or the TOR Project that promotes Internet anonymity, and in effect helps activists share sensitive material, can also be heading for financial constraints.

Leading human rights and civil rights groups that have voiced concern over SOPA include Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Wikimedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that has been voicing the need for a free Internet.

Sobering examples

In her edit dated November 21 for Electronic Frontier Foundation, its activism director Rainey Rietman wrote: “From Mubarak knocking a country offline by pressuring local ISPs to PayPal caving in to political pressure to cut off funding to Wikileaks, this year has brought us sobering examples of how online speech can be endangered. And it's not only political speech that is threatened. In the United States, legislation is working its way through Congress that would give the government and private actors broad new online censorship tools in the name of improving intellectual property rights enforcement. As Internet users, we rely on a chain of intermediaries such as social networks, search engines and ISPs to ensure creative expression and information reach a broader audience. Unfortunately, ‘weak links' in this chain can operate as choke points to accomplish widespread censorship.”

To learn more about American censorship, log on to www.americancensorship.org. Electronic Frontier Foundation is at www.eff.org.

From Facebook to Twitter, every website that thrives on user-generated content could fall under the purview of the legislature

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