Columns / Discourse / January 18, 2012

World Politics Corner: A black day for Wikipedia

Wikipedia — the temple of easy access information — blacked out on Wednesday in protest of the congressional bill Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate bill Protect IP Act (PIPA).

SOPA focuses on international sites (sites with foreign IP addresses) infringing U.S. Copyright. If passed, this legislation will allow the U.S. Attorney General to (pending a court order) sue such sites.

U.S. law has no bearing outside of its borders, so international sites, unless their governments are willing to aid the U.S., have nothing to fear from this legislation. The biggest opposition to this legislation is from domestic companies.

Both bills have been opposed by Internet giants such as Mozilla Corporation, ebay, PayPal, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Society, Yahoo!, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn and our future overlord: Google. The European Union, interestingly, is also opposed to this legislation.

For some of the above-mentioned names, this law is essentially an end to business; most of YouTube is crawling with copyright infringement. For others, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this is an assault of freedom.

According to Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain SOPA’s domestic implications include provisions that will censor search engines, payment networks and service providers from listing infringing sites. SOPA requires that search engines take “technically feasible and reasonable measures” to prevent users from accessing infringing sites. The vagueness of the terms “technically feasible” or “reasonable” could pose problems for implementation of and adherence to the law.

There are numerable problems with this legislation, as well as PIPA — which is similar in scope and effects. For one, there are two principals at issue: due process and freedom of thought and expression.

Secondly, there are also the problems of projected U.S. job loss as a result of this bill, and the prosecution of more acceptable copyright infringement (you know, Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia — you do not have to put a source down in their articles).

Thirdly, having judges who may not know the technical aspects of anything Internet-related be the enforcers of vague terms like “technically feasible” sounds almost like a comedy sketch on SNL.

Really the list goes on, and by list, I mean the petition signed by those Internet giants I mentioned earlier. The issue of principles is an interesting (and non-technical) one to ponder.

For due process, it is simple: there is no due process in this legislation. The government can shut down “infringing sites” without warrant or notification, or even those non-tech-savvy judges.

The freedom of thought and expression problem basically makes the argument that the United States is not, and should not become, like China. Opponents of SOPA state that this issue of copyright infringement may lead to general censorship of ideas. This idea of a “slippery slope” is, in reality, a weak argument to make if there is no indication of a pattern being made.

In this case, there is a pattern being made. Talk of Internet infringement law came to the forefront of American politics when the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks posted its helicopter video online. However, censorship is, of course, in practice all the time.

The U.S. government has masterfully censored television; after the chaos of televised battles from Vietnam, the U.S. government learned that to keep public opinion on their side, free press was not an option.

Since video killed the radio star already, and print was next on the hit list, controlling television was a priority. While Watergate had the distinct impression that objective investigative news was still alive, the team-up of television and government had already been in the works before Fox News debuted.

At the end of World War II, the United States saw a successful media campaign to get women out of the workforce and into the homes. It was successful because the etiquette of the TV dinner was just gaining popularity, and the family now centered on the giant picture box instead of their radios.

If we think back to a year ago, we were all given the same black and white footage (with commentary circles and arrows) of Israeli troops being attacked on the Freedom Flotillas; this same video was used on every major news-broadcasting channel. If you searched online you could find hours of video that showed a different story, but that was not on TV.

More recently, when it came to Wikileaks, the United States made it illegal for PayPal and MasterCard to send payments to the infamous site in an effort to damage it.

This is the problem for the U.S. government: they can control the TV but not the Internet.

Television giants such as Viacom and Motion Picture Association of America, have their own reasons for wanting the Internet knocked down a peg. Why watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on a TV and pay cable bills, when I can watch it for free on YouTube? Sure it’s taken down, but it always comes back up somewhere else.

So, could the U.S. turn into China? Let’s make it a “maybe.”

Rana Tahir
Rana Tahir is a political columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering international issues. She will graduate in June 2013 with degrees in political science and creative writing, after which she will attend the University of Denver's publishing institute.

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