The Internet, as we know it, could be coming to an end. And today is a good example of what could be.
You may have noticed several of your favorite websites are not operating today, including powerhouses Wikipedia and Reddit (where the grassroots campaign for the blackout began), along with 7,000 to 10,000 smaller websites, according to the International Business Times. In addition, you might have noticed a special note on Google's homepage pledging solidarity to the blacked-out sites (Google even considered joining).
All of this is in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act, and this is what the Internet is going to look like if it passes.
How We Got Here
The Stop Online Piracy Act (known as SOPA), introduced on Oct. 26 by twelve bipartisan co-sponsors and now before the House Judiciary Committee, is a complicated bill aimed to stopping online piracy. The Protect IP Act (or PIPA), the Senate version, seeks to do the same thing. Both allow copyright holders and the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders against sites illegally hosting content (e.g. streaming feature films) or engaging in illegal activity (e.g. selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals).
At first glance, it seems like a good idea. After all, piracy causes significant damage to the U.S. economy: the Motion Picture Associate of America claims piracy costs the U.S. about $58 million annually and puts 19 million jobs in jeopardy, according to the New York Times.
Yet, these sites have decided to "go nuclear" by shutting down for a bit in a protest against the passage of SOPA. The bill was put on hold prior to today's blackout, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith graciously assured everyone the bill will be picked back up next month.
These companies' reason for the blackout is simple: the bills, as proposed, could seriously damage the function of the Internet. When written, that seems like such an egregiously overwrought statement, but you have to remember that this is an overwrought, broadly written bill, backed not to help the Internet flourish but to keep the entertainment industry lucrative.
Taking Down Piracy (And The Internet, Too)
The immediate problem here is that SOPA or PIPA could seriously damage any website (even the big ones) that are not engaged in piracy but are venues where piracy might occur. SOPA targets sites that are "committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations." In other words, pretty much any site that exchanges information (think of the last time you accidentally viewed a copyrighted video on YouTube and you probably didn't even realize it). To its credit, at least PIPA goes after sites that are used "primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities," but that definition is still seen as dubiously broad.
David Carr of the New York Timeswrote, "Given both Congress's and the entertainment industry's historically wobbly grasp of technology, I don't think they should be the ones re-engineering the Internet. The rest of us might have to just hold our noses and learn enough about SOPA to school them in why it's a bad idea." He's right — this isn't going to stop unless we help stop it, by learning about SOPA and PIPA, and by speaking out.
Take, for example, a website such as Reddit, which is a user-generated social news website on which users post information in a message board format. This site recently held a successful boycott against GoDaddy (for supporting SOPA) in which 37,000 domains left GoDaddy for other websites. If SOPA or PIPA passes, Reddit would probably be all but shut down. Under the proposed bill, if one user of Reddit's hundreds of thousands posted pirated content, the site's URL could be banned from the Internet. That is insanity.
The argument is not "should we attempt to quell online piracy." The argument is "should we attempt to quell online piracy with SOPA," and the answer is obvious: not without some sort of massive reform of the bill. Quelling it is necessary, but it's the age-old problem brought to the digital age: politicians trying to interfere with something they simply do not understand.
Just Not Good Enough
This isn't like shutting down Oink! or Kaaza or a site that's been identified as contributing to the problem of online piracy: this is possibly shutting down everything (esp. big names that deal in massive loads of information such as Google, Facebook, Reddit and more). These big names attempt to control what information is passed, but it's like keeping shoplifters out of a store at the mall. So much activity is going on, some will slip by. So we just shut down Fortune 500 companies, essentially, because of that? You don't shut down the Gap if someone does a drug deal in the Gap; you arrest the drug dealer. That, again, is insanity.
This column isn't even getting into all the First Amendment issues. Lawyer Laurence H. Tribe said SOPA would "undermine the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet. And it would violate the First Amendment."
It's a little cringe-inducing, if this particular thought-path is correct (and it seems pretty obvious that it is): it comes down to dollars and cents. According to the NYT, "the 32 sponsors of the legislation received four times as much in contributions from the entertainment industry as they did from software and Internet companies."
This isn't Metallica fighting Napster; this is EMI-Sony fighting Napster.
Today's blackout is a fantastic trump card that will hopefully get people interested in something that those who don't keep up with tech probably don't know about, and it might clue the politicians in on the fact that this is a serious issue. I only wish more websites had joined in. Will that be enough of a trump card to beat out the disparity in financial political capitol between online companies and traditional media? No, but at least they'll have tried.
Half of winning is showing up, and if SOPA passes, many may not be able to show up any more.