When we started this blackout, I had two main concerns about PIPA/SOPA. First, would I still be able to access images of cute puppy pictures through Google Image Search? And second, would I be allowed to post copyrighted emo lyrics on my Facebook status when I’m feeling moody?
Even while writing this post, I still don’t know the answers. Nevertheless, The Georgetown Progressive decided to participate in a 24-hour blackout yesterday to support freedom on the internet. I acknowledge that this was not without serious discomfort on my part as Editor-in-Chief. I like protests as much as the next progressive, but sometimes, they don’t raise the kind of awareness desired. Most of what I learned from the Wikipedia blackout, for example, is that my mother has been right all a long: we are way too dependent on Wikipedia. Thank goodness the Wikipedia page on PIPA was still accessible!
The blackout, popular on websites where users consider themselves creators (WordPress blogs like this one, Wikipedia, Reddit, etc.), provides a false sense of grassroots activism. In a time when so many Americans are disenchanted with Congress, the President, big corporations, or all, grassroots activism is appealing because it originates with millions of people and works its way up instead of the other way around (think #Occupy and the Tea Party pre-Bachmann Caucus Era). But protesting PIPA and SOPA isn’t the same. Consider one of the leading sponsors of an anti-SOPA/PIPA petition: Google. Google makes millions of dollars every year by linking to obvious copyright violations. YouTube, in particular, makes money every time I decide I want to listen to a 3OH!3 song without having to admit that I like 3OH!3 by buying their music.
That said, despite the removal of the controversial DNS blocking statutes, there are still several major problems with both PIPA and SOPA. The legal concept of imposing secondary liability is a little strange. Techdirt has a fantastic article about the bills with a particularly good metaphor to explain what PIPA/SOPA does: “The point of safe harbors from secondary liability is blaming the party actually doing the action that breaks the law. We don’t allow people to sue AT&T because the telephone was used in commission of a crime and we don’t sue Ford because someone crashed their pickup truck into another car. Liability should be properly applied to the parties doing the action that breaks the law.” Before you claim that US companies are safe, take a look at this piece, which does a good job of reminding us that sites like google.ca or amazon.co.uk are still American-based companies that may be blocked from US search engine results (like Google).
The anti-circumvention laws are understandable in their intent but also seem to create more problems than they solve. If I tell you where to find a foreign pirating website on my Facebook after its links have been removed from Google, Facebook is screwed rather than the pirating site or the user who shared the information. More importantly, the legislation may cause serious problems for journalists and NGO employees abroad who are trying to communicate with their employers, their families, or the U.S. government.
In short, the proposed legislation is potentially extremely damaging for a whole host of reasons. The blackout was intended to raise awareness. But it didn’t do all that it could have. Ask your friends who signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition: what does SOPA do? If the answer isn’t more than “censor the internet,” send them here. We can’t have a productive conversation about how to intelligently protect the creators of intellectual property until everyone knows not just that Wikipedia blacked out for a day, but why.