SOPA and PIPA: The Internet is still in danger

Until yesterday, there may have been some folks out there who thought SOPA and PIPA would make cute puppy names, as my colleague Allison Schiff suggested. It wasn’t until major websites like Craigslist, Reddit, Wired, WordPress and Wikipedia staged a daylong blackout — along with approximately a gazillion smaller sites — that Web users of every age and stripe were forced into an understanding of what the Stop Online Privacy Act and its Senate counterpart, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, could mean to the open sharing of knowledge on the Internet.

The puppies are really wolves in disguise.

By the way, I just linked to an image that is undoubtedly copyrighted material, so if the legislation were law, this would be the end for Direct Marketing News’ website — without a speck of legal due process.

As far as protests go, yesterday’s was effective. Of the 40 original sponsors of the Senate’s PIPA, six have defected and another 12, while still supporting the intent of the bill to enhance the protection of intellectual property, are working to rejigger the legislation to make it less Orwellian (I hope).

House members have also been backtracking on SOPA. Yesterday, SOPA cosponsors Reps. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) withdrew their support.

The issue websites, protesters and, now, your average Internet-addicted Joe have with the two bills is not that they necessarily want carte blanche to pirate movies and music — although file-sharing websites could be concerned about that aspect — but that the broad wording of the legislation would allow the government to shut down, without notice, any website hosting any copyrighted content whatsoever.

This would have the effect of placing upon the Internet a gag order. Under PIPA/SOPA, the fact that I’m about to link to something from file-sharing torrent site The Pirate Bay could result in Direct Marketing News’ entire website being taken down for a second time today. Interestingly, The Pirate Bay claims to be not scared of these bills at all.

Anyone who attempted a Google search yesterday saw its logo masked by a black bar, which when clicked, linked to a petition page and a charming infographic. Google said 4.5 million people took the time to sign the petition.

The looming specter of SOPA and PIPA didn’t just prompt website blackouts. Massive traffic to the websites of congressional reps overloaded and shut some down completely. The popular website Mashable didn’t go dark, but replaced its regular content with 100% SOPA coverage. Actual physical protests occurred in major cities, including New York and San Francisco.

More than 2.4 million tweets on Jan. 18 were about the bills. Teachers and students alike seriously freaked out or alluded to pending meltdowns on Twitter, where it became uncomfortably obvious that neither teachers nor students are learning from books anymore. Many of these tweeters were also completely clueless about what was happening, some actually tweeting “RIP Wikipedia,” which makes me wonder: Is our children learning? 

Hopefully now they get it.  

(Side note: Since when did user-edited Wikipedia become acceptable as a vetted source for lesson plans and term paper research? Didn’t everyone see the Colbert Report episode when Steven Colbert urged his fans to go online, find Wikipedia articles about elephants and edit them to include the completely untrue statement that their population had tripled in the last six months? Roughly 20 articles were vandalized, and Wikipedia blocked Colbert from being able to edit Wiki pages. But I can log on right now, go to George Washington’s Wiki page, as Colbert also did that night, and edit it to say that he never owned slaves. This would be bad news for someone’s George Washington term paper.)

(I also just linked to copyrighted material — a television episode — so this would be the third time I’d have gotten Direct Marketing News’ website killed under the legislation.)

But whether a reliable source or not, the beauty of the Internet is the free and open sharing of information. Everyone knows that you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet, but without such an open forum, the truth would have a harder time revealing itself. It’s a cliché for a reason that the cream rises to the top.

The problem is that while effective, yesterday’s protest didn’t kill the legislation. Many people may misguidedly think SOPA and PIPA are dead in the water now. Not the case. While the Web’s Jan. 18 protests and blackouts shined a bright light on the danger the bills pose to free speech and liberty, this is not yesterday’s news. Internet restriction is still on the table. Lawmakers are simply redrafting the legislation, which may or may not contain language that would turn America’s Internet into a replica of China’s. One thing, though, is for sure: The conversation needs to continue, unabridged and unabated.

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