The Sopa-Pipa

The controversy that is brewing in the United States of America over the SOPA has had deep implications that have been coupled with the introduction of the PIPA Act which in its turn challenges the Trans- Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP). The debate over SOPA highlights the significance of striking the right balance in terms of intellectual property legislations in order to promote innovation and creativity. It reveals that over-protection in the media and entertainment industry can suppress free expression by people and the efficient functioning of the Internet as the medium of commerce and communication not only in the jurisdiction, but beyond the extraterritorial confines of that jurisdiction as well (Kamal, 2005). Moreover, the debate exposes the capability of the internet-using community to promptly mobilize resources and defeat the policy that it believes to be threatening its freedom and existence. The main concern raised regarding the proposed legislation is: Will the potential passage of the Stop On-Line Piracy Act (SOPA) and/or Protect IP Act (PIPA) benefit business and the general public? There is no doubt that these legislations will affect the operations of businesses, especially the online based commerce businesses, and the welfare of the  public in general. Intellectual property ownership is the legal base that has made entertainment industries and modern technologies possible. If one creates something novel, one ought to obtain the benefits of their creation. Public policy needs to be considered holistically: the entire costs and benefits to everyone need to be considered. The language and scope of SOPA is so extensive, the penalties and consequences are so disconnected from the alleged offense and the rules largely detached from the reality of Internet technology that legislations could effectively hamper e-commerce or even the general public internet use. The legislations also have serious implications on the existing United States foreign and international laws and characteristics of a case that it will take decades to dispute them.

One of the important concerns raised regarding the proposed legislations relates to the effect it would have on the commercial aspect provided through the internet, as well as the effect they would have on the freedom and existence of the general internet users.

In a recent nationwide outcry, popular websites all over the world, including Facebook and Google, participated in a blackout protest against the PIPA and SOPA Acts, which were in debate in the White House and Senate respectively. The PIPA Act is designed to fight piracy, with scrupulous emphasis on the illegal copies of movies and other media available on foreign servers (BBC sopa and pipa, 2012). The PIPA act gives the United States government, along with other relevant right holders, the power to request a court order against any website facilitating or enabling piracy. This court order could potentially have an entire website shut down. Additionally, the SOPA Act, if passed, would mandate all search engines to remove legally infringing websites from their search results (BBC sopa and pipa 2012). Although, the proposed Acts could fight the vice of piracy and effectively prevent the rate of piracy from increasing, the legislation also threatens to change the structure and constitution of the internet business operations and possibly violate the constitutional rights of the general public: Freedom of speech.

During the introduction of SOPA by the US representative Lamar S. Smith, the bills received support from the United States Chamber of Commerce, pharmaceutical companies, luxury goods manufacturers, the entertainment industry and some unions (McManus, 2012; Fox, 2012). At the same time, the proposed legislations provoked sharp criticism from public interest groups, internet companies and venture capitalists, who believed that the legislation would undercut the technical and legal infrastructure of the internet as well as affect the revenue income these sites receive from online business (Nayak, 2011). These groups raised concerns in the business and individual capacities including: the classification of legitimate and non-legitimate websites of both home and foreign origin; the actions and mandates to intermediaries that will allow them to be second-guessed; privacy laws that assure Internet companies incentives to monitor activity of users; and the extraterritorial application of the U.S. Law that would lead to the imposition of American IP standard on not American websites (Newman, 2012). 

Theory and Background

The SOPA and PIPA Acts are closely related to the censorship laws established in China and Iran, and more recently introduced in Spain (Masnick, 2011).  In the Chinese Republic, the government has devoted a lot of resources in censoring and controlling internet content accessible by its citizens. This censorship varies from everything ranging from politically sensitive sites to online gaming and social networks which have to be decided on whether they should be in the open access of the public (Chen, 2011). In China, popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are considered western and are often blocked. Iran is also another country where internet blockades have gone into effect. According to the Huffington post article on censorship, the latest internet censorship in the world (initiated by Iran) affected the most general form of secure connections, including all encrypted global websites outside Iran which are often reliant on the  Secure Sockets Layer protocol, which shows addresses beginning with “http”( Abocar, 2012). In Iran, as well as in most of the Middle East countries, the internet has been increasingly developing obstacles in both social and economic circles, since its citizens organized protests against the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, with the internet being a major casualty in the change (University of Illinois, 2011). Similar to the legislations enacted in Iran and China, Spain has also established a new censorship bill as well. The country’s goal is to have infringing websites deregistered in a matter of days. The timeline includes time for having the site declared by a Judge as infringing copyright regulations and being brought down (BBC; Anti- Internet Piracy, 2012). Similarly, the United States of America is contemplating following Iran, China and Spain in the implementation of internet censorship acts.

Two acts are in the debate stages of legislation and discussion is rife on whether they should be implemented in the United States. These are the SOPA and PIPA Acts. Both these Acts have the same objective in China, Spain and Iran that is to censor information and stop online piracy. However, protests have been widespread in an attempt to stop congress from enacting these bills into law. Like China, once the bills are ratified into law, some of the popular social networking sites are potentially at risk of being shut down. For instance, a site that contains even one link to another site suspected of piracy is at risk of being closed down, regardless of whether the link was posted by a user or member of the site (BBC Sopa and Pipa, 2012). As is in Iran, the United States citizens face several hindrances to using the internet, as they watch widely visited sites disappear off their search engines. Through the implementation of the legislations, the government has the ability to completely change the structure of the internet as Americans know it.

The Present Status of SOPA and PIPA in the American Government and Business

After the introduction of the legislation, both bills received large support in the House and began moving swiftly through congress, albeit the concern raised by many online users and stakeholders. A number of factors converged to hinder this progression. Two of these factors, which include the online protest and the indictment of the Megaupload website and owner, are noteworthy. The former will be discussed later in the paper.

The Whitehouse  

The Whitehouse issued a statement on the subject expressing the concerns with particular aspects and the legislation provisions. When stating that foreign websites internet piracy is a severe issue that requires strong legal response, the government reiterated that it would not support legislations that increases cyber security risk, reduces expression freedom or undermines innovative and dynamic global internet. The Whitehouse position was that online piracy must be separated from the risk of lawful activity censorship and must not restrain innovation by the country’s small and large businesses (Espinel, Chopra & Schmidt, 2012).

The Megaupload Indictment

On January 19, 2012- one day after an online protest against the legislation- saw another event added weight to the campaign for the need for SOPA and PIPA: the indictment of Megaupload and its proprietor for criminal copyright infringement and money laundering. This website was largely used as an online storage site that was cited as the perfect example of the “rogue” foreign sites that necessitate enforcement tools such as PIPA and SOPA (Dial, 2012).       

The OPEN Act

Congressman Darryl Issa and Senator Ron Wyden introduced the OPEN Act, an alternative bill to the SOPA/PIPA legislation that was aimed countering the massive public outcry against the two bills. The OPEN Act is the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act. Like its replacement, the OPEN Act requires intermediaries to terminate services to non-U.S. based internet sites that are dedicated to infringing activity (DesMarais, 2012). Internet corporations supported this legislative alternative. However, associations and unions representing the rights holders oppose it, arguing the act will not offer effective relief due to the heavy standards it proposed to meet (Couts, 2012).

Potential Benefits of the SOPA and PIPA laws

Although there is wide opposition to both these Acts, they offer some benefits to business and the general public. With the implementation of both Acts, the rate of piracy in the United States would decrease, sites would be more mindful of patent and copyright infringement. In addition, the economy would be positively affected (BBC Sopa and Pipa, 2012). People in the United States would seriously consider against illegally downloading music or other types of files. According to provisions in the PIPA Act, anyone convicted of accessing copyrighted information or material without permission more than a dozen times over a six month period faces a conviction of up to five years. Similarly, websites would be more mindful of the links and information they post in their content to avoid penalties or complete shutdown. Taken as a whole, this would cause a positive ripple effect on the economy (The Wall Street Journal, 2012).

With people no longer downloading copyrighted information and material, the same people would eventually begin obtaining material legally by buying it. This could potentially make the sale of films, and other media increase. However, this could also have a negative impact on the economy, particularly in business; individuals who illegally download copyright information because they cannot afford to purchase them in the first place (Raustila & Sprigman, 2012). Consequently, the sale of that item would essentially be lost and one less client would not be able to view the work of talented individuals (Raustila & Sprigman, 2012). 

The SOPA and PIPA Acts violate the American 1st Amendment which grants right to freedom of speech and the 4th Amendment concerning freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures (Paul, 2012). The Acts would basically allow the United States government to keep an eye on the activity of its citizens and shut down sites that instigates people to illegally obtain copyright protected materials.  Individuals would lose their sense of privacy, and fear being put in prison by the authorities for illegal downloads. By censoring the internet, many social networks and blogs would be affected, the two primary platforms that the modern Americans use to express their feelings and thoughts about different topics. The SOPA and PIPA Acts would make these websites inaccessible, and the voices of these individuals would be lost and prevented from exercising their freedom of speech (Broes, 2012).

On the social arena, these bills would have a profound effect on how the internet operates on the basic level (Honda, 2012).Today, Americans are heavily dependent on the internet; grade school, online lessons and colleges all over the country would have to tailor their computer and online classes to teach based on a new system of operations. The shift in technology would ultimately lead to the facilities incurring millions of dollars to support the project. The Acts would more directly affect social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook rendering them inaccessible. On average, college and universities visit social networking sites more than once every day and would spend about twenty two hours online monthly  (Social network, 2012). Considering that medias such as Facebook register revenues based on the number of visitors they have, millions, maybe billions of dollars would be lost should the SOPA and PIPA Acts be established and lead to the shutdown of the world’s most popular social site. This seizure would cause individuals to look for other means of communication with the people they are currently connected to on these social networking sites.  In light of this, some believe that non implementation of the SOPA/PIPA bills could cost more than it would if not ratified (Miller, 2012).

Methods

My research paper focuses on different aspects and status the SOPA and PIPA Acts gained in different quarters including the Whitehouse, congress, online corporate businesses and online public protests against the legislations. Proponents alleged that the proposed bills protected against copyright infringement, piracy and theft of intellectual property. Opponents of the bills argued that the proposed bills threatened free speech, enabled law enforcement authorities to unfairly block access to websites and hinder innovation. The events marked a vital turning point in the structure and culture of the internet. Thus, the objective was to evaluate the consequences the introduction of the proposed bills would have on the general public interest as well as the economic effects the change will have on the business aspect of the internet. Firstly, the goal was to evaluate the reception the proposed bills received in the public ranging from senior congressional representatives through the opinions posted in their public blogs to the general public from the massive and influential online protests they conducted in January 2012, that had the effect of changing the Congress position from 80 supporters to at least 31 opponents and to a final count of 55 supporters and 205 opponents of the bills (ProPublica.org). Many were of the opinion that the public outcry against the bills was the first political bout of many more to come between the all relevant parties involved.

Secondly, the research aimed at evaluating the different aspects and consequences that the implementation of the bills into the law would have on businesses that are largely rely or are affected by the internet. Censoring the internet has both positive and negative consequences. Another goal of the research was to evaluate the positions some of the world’s biggest online based corporations such as Facebook and Google reacted to the proposed bills and potential consequences the implementation or non-implementation of the bills would have on the revenue and operations of these companies.

Even though the research addresses both the positive and negative effects of the bills in regard to the business aspect of internet censorship, the research was somewhat biased towards the more mobilized opponents of the bills as the proposition side remained relatively quiet. The major websites lobbied for their interests while smaller websites contributed to the campaign and the individuals let their voices be heard on the issue. When evaluating the situation, it is challenging to colonize the entire sphere of research in the methodological domains of cultural studies, mass communication, economic sciences, media studies and others. An interdisciplinary approach has to be adopted to narrow and segment the research into a manageable structure- a limited but insightful mode to explain something bigger.

The key concept in framing the research question and answer is internet censorship lubrication. The main tool for gathering the relevant information in the research was gathering and evaluating information from vocal congressional personalities, corporate positions on different aspects of the bills and online survey provided to a sample population. By performing a targeted survey, the research aims at recruiting public opinion on their positions. Estimates of the number of people, who regularly use the internet widely vary (Kaye & Johnson).

The research sampling begins with finding the right sample population to evaluate. The representative sampling occurred via several methods of internet research. Big web entities such as Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were contacted for sample numbers. Exercising equal consideration and care, Congress representatives will also be contacted for similar information, failure of which the research paper would have to rely on information provided through the public address modes used by the Congressmen such as their personal blog platforms. The survey population will also be contacted via Twitter, Facebook and blogosphere.

From the general public standpoint, it is expected that the bulk of the sample participants will be characterized by the Generation Y bracket of the population. This bracket is largely considered to be the digital natives, who have all grown up in a world characterized by constant connectivity, user generated content, hyper social behaviour, and excessive multitasking.  This group is passionate about technology (Kokich). This generation offers the best platform to survey the effects of internet censorship to the general public.

Data Collection

Gathering information would be to implement the surveys of internet user participants, who take active part in the protest and record their accounts and opinions on the subject. The aithor of the surver will also be classified as an active participant considering he is an  active internet user, who would be directly or indirectly affected by the censorship programs. Each additional research participant augments the study by answering the focused question provided on the subject.

On assessing the impact of the censorship programs on the general public, the first set of questions would document the sample demographic, for instance the question ‘What is your age group?’ will be asked. The recording of the user demographics would be a very interesting coding opportunity to prove the theory that Gen Y is the predominant online user that is likely to be affected greatly, apart from businesses of course. 

Sample Question Survey  

What is your age group?

What is your political affiliation?

Are you active in politics: strongly agree; somewhat active; neither active nor entirely inactive; somewhat disagree; strongly inactive?

What is your opinion of the SOPA/PIPA issue?

How did you find out the information on the issue?

I approved/supported SOPA/PIPA?

Do you agree that SOPA and PIPA bills protect against piracy, copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. Why or why not?

In what way do you believe the ratification of the bill into the law will affect you?

Findings

The most significant event by the general public that has notably affected the position of the legislations is the online protest that took place on January 18, 2012, and was organized by the entities with a strong internet presence. The online encyclopaedia and language site Wikipedia blocked most of its content and referred its visitors to the information about the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills, and how to contact their Congressional representatives. Search engine giant Google blocked out its logo from its home page and Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, and placed prominent notices on their home sites with regard to the legislations. In the end, over 115,000 sites participated in the protest, with over 50,000 blacking out part or their entire site. As a result of the blockage over one billion people were affected. Visitors and users quickly responded to the situation. About ten million people signed different petitions protesting the legislation.  Over four million emails were sent to Congressional representatives (Wasserman, 2012).   

The online protest received wide coverage in the traditional media: newspapers and television, and all four Republican Presidential candidates criticized the bill in the South Carolina Primaries on January 19, 2012. The sponsors of the legislations initially withdrew their support of the bills (Fox, 2012). On January 20, Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, withdrew the  PIPA bill from the Senate calendar (Lee, 2012). Lamar Smith, House Judiciary Committee Chairman and the chief supporter of the SOPA bill stated that it was clear that the Senate and House needed to revisit the approach on how to clearly address the problem of foreign infringing websites (Miller, 2012).

The above said actions show the enormous effect and negative publicity the legislations provoked in both the business and general public spheres. The enormous corporate heat on the mere introduction of the bills for debate generated is enough to explain that the business consequences of online activity is not expected to be entirely positive once the bills are enacted into law. One of the main hindrances that corporate America is against is the obstruction of freedom of speech, where the inadvertent publishing or posting of the wrong information could land the individual(s) in jail, not mentioning the heavy fine and penalties one’s business would be sunjected to. Additionally, these businesses face the risk of being completely shut down in the event they are found guilty of the slightest of offences.

On the other hand, the public would be denied what is believed to be an important part of modern living as well as a favourite past time in the present world: the internet. There is no doubt that the internet is a significant part of contemporary America with services ranging from education to entertainment. The censorship programs will, no doubtedly, affect frequently visited websites such as popular social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as these companies have no way to regulate changes done by their  users.

It is obvious that the bills are necessary to fight piracy, but not at the expense of public interest and freedom. Perhaps, the introduction of the OPEN act as alternatives to the proposed bills could serve to strike two birds with one stone so to speak: the challenging of the piracy menace while at the same time offer the business and public what they want. However, in light of these revelations, there is no doubt that the SOPA and PIPA legislations would affect the current position of the business operations and general public living.

Some of the prevalent issues raised on the subject of SOPA and PIPA are:

  1. Legitimate websites: even though the bills’ sponsors say that they are targeting the ‘worst of the worst’ of the foreign websites, the proposed bills apply to both American and non-American based websites. Furthermore, a small amount of the infringing information within a large website could conceivably trigger a remedy that could affect the entire website.  This could have dire consequences on the business aspect of the website as complete shutdown of the sites could lead to loss of revenue and business.
  2. The technological mandates in the proposed bills allow intermediaries to assess whether they established sufficient actions in order to meet their obligations in response to orders.  These actions would subsequently invite the judicial system to determine what measures are commercially reasonable and technically feasible and mandate any additional technological measures by the intermediaries.
  3. Support: most of the population evaluated was opposed to the introduction of censorship laws. Information retrieved from several Congressional offices also serves to fuel opinions that some of the lawmakers themselves feel that censorship programs are retrospective in some aspect. All the above quarters contend that the establishment of censorship laws is vital to protect both business and individuals alike, the extent that the provisions of the proposed laws are not aimed to serve the interests of all parties involved.  
  4. Privacy:  most of the respondents to the research were found to be in the generation Y bracket. The most consistent variable in this population is the loss of privacy that they believe would be the most probable consequence of internet censorship. The ratification of the bills would lead to widespread government censorship in the activities of its citizens, and consequently, depriving the public of their right to privacy.
  5. Apart from the U.S. websites, international companies fear for the extraterritorial application of the American domestic laws in foreign countries. SOPA and PIPA impose Internet standard on non-U.S. sites (Hellman, 2012). Members of the European Union parliament observe that European countries would be enforced to accept the America standards to stop DNS blocking considering the world wide character of the internet (Moody, 2012). Legally, non-U.S. based websites have the ability to protect themselves under in rem, however, few website companies would not be willing to incur the cost of litigation in the United States.

Conclusion

The introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills has, no doubtedly, generated a lot of positive and negative opinions from different quarters not only in the United States but from the foreign countries as well. No legislation has received such a massive public and corporate response in the recent history of the American law making process. The question of whether the potential passage of the Stop On-Line Piracy Act (SOPA) and/or Protect IP Act (PIPA) benefit businesses and the general public at large has seen was the central basis of this paper. The effect such legislation would have on the economic and social lives of the American citizens cannot be understated. Companies face the prospect of being shut down and individuals face the risk of going behind bars. The answer to this question is yes, the ratification of these bills would affect the operations of businesses both positively and negatively, depending on which side of the divide one is actually on. Some business would thrive as revenue loss is protected against while some companies might be closed if found guilty of violation of rules, whether inadvertently or knowingly. 

Both Congressmen and Citizens agree that there is indeed a problem in the nation with regard to piracy. Some additional research is required to be conducted so that the American government and its citizens are able to agree on what measures should be undertaken. The people do not want a law that will affect their daily lives so immensely and for a long period of time. The United States wants its citizens to take copyright infringement and illegal downloading more seriously than they are at the moment, but the amendment of the proposed bills should be seriously considered.

As they stand at the moment, both bills are not entirely on the right track. The American people should not have to worry about their favourite websites being shutdown; corporations do not have to worry about losing their revenue and most importantly, the people of the United States do not have to worry about their government violating their legal and constitutional rights. Nevertheless, the US citizens should take piracy more seriously so that the American government does not have to implement any form of internet censorship legislation.      

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