January 18 saw internet users worldwide gasp in horror as Wikipedia, the decade-old salvation of coursework, staged an unprecedented protest. The largest collection of knowledge in human history was blacked out; replaced with a dark image and an equally solemn message warning that the end of digital freedom on the internet could be at hand.
The decision made by the editors of Wikipedia was a very high-profile demonstration in protest of two bills currently making their way through the American House of Representatives and the Senate. They are H.R. 3261 and S. 968, known respectively as SOPA and PIPA; the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.
Though masquerading as simply the latest incarnation of online anti-piracy policies, these laws would actually transform the U.S. Department of Justice into a devastating weapon to be wielded by major private corporations in the media industry, giving them the power to instantly and indefinitely shut down any website for even the most minuscule of copyright violations, intentional or not.
SOPA/PIPA would force many popular websites to shut down, including the likes of YouTube for failing to adequately censor copyrighted material. No warnings, no due process, a perfunctory hearing at best; as soon as a complaint is made, the site goes down at the hands of a DNS blocking system – a nationwide firewall filter similar to those censoring the internet in China and Iran – detailed in PIPA.
Even inadvertent breaches of copyright could risk the most innocuous of websites; Wikipedia could be shut down for linking to a site that condones piracy, Twitter or Facebook could be forced offline if they don't censor links to 'unlicensed' material. Even the seemingly-indestructible online behemoth Google could be forced into fatal submission if it fails to remove every search result that links to a 'prohibited' site.
Basically, any website that accepts user-submitted content would be obligated by law to actively monitor all content submitted by its users, and thoroughly vet each site to which it links, seeking out any copyright infringement and report it. The sheer amount of content which would need to be scrutinised questions the proposals, considering that YouTube alone receives 35 hours' worth of new footage each minute.
The irony of this whole legislative nightmare is that SOPA and PIPA don't take into account the resilience of online pirates. Illicit websites forced into closure would simply reappear hours later under a new banner and domain name, as they have in previous attempts.
On top of the enormous penalties for web domains found to be in violation of the act, SOPA also proposes a number of similarly massive penalties for the average user on the internet. For example, as little as uploading a YouTube video with an 'unlicensed soundtrack' could earn the uploader a several-year stay in America's overflowing prison system. Fortunately for those of us in the UK, these prison laws only apply to US citizens; unfortunately, however, the devastating effects of the SOPA/PIPA acts will cripple the internet on a global scale.
The question now is 'can SOPA and PIPA be stopped?' The short answer is that no-one knows. While still supported by quite a few large organisations, albeit mostly in Hollywood, and also in diminished numbers, SOPA has accumulated increasing stigma.
It's unclear whether President Obama plans on using the Presidential Veto to block the bill. Though statements from Whitehouse staff have been confusing at best, one declares that the President will not support any bill that restricts free speech or one that would 'squelch' development. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean Obama will put a stop to this disproportionately destructive bill barging through the American law-making system, but we can certainly hope so.
When Wikipedia, the fifth most-accessed website (according to ranking.com and alexa.com,) in the world shuts its doors for 24 hours in protest against the single most threatening censorship law ever conceived, it's quite clear that we should stand up and take notice.
An enormous number of similar blackout-style protests were staged on January 18, including Minecraft, Imgur, WordPress, Reddit, Mozilla (makers of the Firefox web browser,) and well-known technology publisher O'Reilly, to name but a few.
Google and 9gag, amongst others, also showed their opposition to SOPA/PIPA. Google US superimposed a black box over the logo on the homepage, while 9gag changed its colour theme to a morbid black. Even 4chan, the notorious message board and host of infamous online legion 'Anonymous' obscured every post with black boxes in similar protest.
SOPA and PIPA are not the first illiberal anti-piracy laws to sneak insidiously into the legal system, but they are among the most dangerous. I fear that even if they are voted down, or vetoed at the last minute, it will not be long before we hear of similar 'reformed' bill seeping through the governments.
The only absolute and ultimate way to end online piracy is simple: shut down the entire Internet; lay waste to the digital landscape and prohibit all computer networking. Should this happen, however, people would go back to copying CDs, tapes and even vinyl records, as they have done for decades. The internet was born free, and so it should always remain.