Anti-Piracy Legislation Stirs Up Controversy in Washington

18 January 2012

Two bills in the US Congress intended to curtail piracy on the internet came under heavy fire this week, with Wikipedia suspending its services for 24 hours and the White House making clear that it would not support the legislation as it stands, forcing lawmakers to reconsider the extent of the bills' provisions.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) - also known as the E-PARASITE Act (Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act) - targets "rogue" websites that are "dedicated to infringing activities."

Its counterpart, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, is currently making its way through the Senate. (See Bridges Weekly 9 November 2011)

SOPA and PIPA would allow copyright owners to obtain court orders to shut down sites accused of hosting pirated content, with a special emphasis on websites registered outside the US.

The bills could also force US-based search engines, advertising networks and payment services - such as Google AdSense and PayPal - not to do business with sites accused of illegal activity.

Obama administration questions central elements of anti-piracy bills

The anti-piracy bills have also elicited a strong response from the White House, which cited serious qualms with central elements of the legislation.

In a statement posted on Saturday 14 January on We The People - a US government platform that addresses public petitions with over 25,000 signatures - the Obama administration announced that "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

The authors of the statement - a group of White House advisers on intellectual property, technology and cybersecurity - also warned that "we must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet."

However, the statement also made clear that - despite opposing SOPA and the Protect IP Act in their current forms - the Obama administration would indeed be pushing for some sort of anti-piracy legislation this year, as "existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders."

"Moving forward, we will continue to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis on legislation that provides new tools needed in the global fight against piracy and counterfeiting, while vigorously defending an open Internet based on the values of free expression, privacy, security and innovation," the advisers added.

The White House statement was written by Victoria Espinel, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at the Office of Management and Budget; Aneesh Chopra, US Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President, and Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Howard Schmidt, Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff.

Wikipedia, other sides go dark in protest

The big win for SOPA and PIPA detractors - with some even speculating that the statement could imply a potential presidential veto on the bill in its current form - has not stopped the tech industry from taking matters into their own hands.

On Monday, user-based information giant Wikipedia announced its decision to black out its English services for 24 hours in protest against the bills. The decision was made by a group of 1800 Wikipedia community members - known as Wikipedians - who called it the "largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia" and marked the first time that the site had ever staged a public protest.

Several other major sites, such as Reddit and Boing Boing, were also set to go dark at 0500 GMT on Wednesday 18 January.

In a statement, Wikipedia Executive Director Sue Gardner called SOPA and PIPA "indicators of a much broader problem."

"All around the world, we're seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms... We want the Internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone," she added.

Supporters push back

However, the bills still have many strong supporters in the content industry, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Screen Actors Guild, which argue that online piracy costs them billions of dollars in yearly revenue.

"While we agree with the White House that protection against online piracy is vital, that protection must be meaningful to protect the people who have been and will continue to be victimised if legislation is not enacted," the MPAA said.

Another supporter of the bill is News Corporation Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted "So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery," in response to the White House statement.

SOPA sponsor and House Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from the US state of Texas, has responded to the criticism by promising to cut certain provisions that would force service providers to block access to foreign websites with infringing content.

In the meantime, the White House said it will host a conference call and online event with signers of the petition opposing the bill to get more input as SOPA moves to the House floor. A vote on PIPA is scheduled in the Senate on 24 January; discussions on SOPA are expected to continue in February.

ICTSD reporting. "U.S. online piracy bill headed for major makeover," REUTERS, 16 January 2012; "Wikipedia joins web blackout in Sopa Act protest," BBC NEWS, 17 January 2012.

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