As of midnight, Wikipedia is shut down for 24 hours, and hundreds of other popular websites have gone dark right along with it. They are standing together in protest of two controversial pieces of legislation that threaten Internet security and undermine the freedom of speech all in an effort to crack down on online "piracy" -- the illegal distribution of copyrighted material.
Hollywood, the music industry, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have gone to bat on behalf of the proposed laws on the grounds that they will help protect valuable copyrighted property. And while the goal is laudable, the ends don't justify the means. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act have far-reaching consequences for the Internet's infrastructure, individual liberties, and innovation in the digital age.
Under the laws, upon a court order, third-party companies and websites would be forced to crack down on rogue websites -- and even ones that unwittingly host or link to material that may violate copyrights or trademarks, whether or not they have knowledge of the violation. Internet service providers would be required to block Internet addresses of offending sites -- a measure that Internet engineers warn could threaten Internet security. Search engines would be prohibited from including pirate sites in search results, a requirement that goes well beyond current law and may, in fact, violate the First Amendment. Heritage's James Gattuso and Paul Rosenzweig explain ramifications:
[L]imits on speech here are almost certain to be extended to other cases. If links to pirate sites are banned, why not links to sites disseminating national security secrets? Or sites "facilitating" violence by propagating extreme political positions? Moreover, other countries that have pursued content controls of their own, such as China, may be encouraged by steps in the U.S. to limit content.
It is concerns like these that have caused a firestorm in the online world, leading Wikipedia to declare that the laws "would be devastating to the free and open web" and prompting Google to campaign against the laws on its highly trafficked search engine. Meanwhile, PC Magazine reports that co-founders of top tech firms like Twitter, Google, Yahoo, and eBay wrote an open letter opposing the laws, arguing that they would undermine the "regulatory climate that promotes entrepreneurship, innovation, the creation of content and free expression online."
Here's why: Under the laws, websites like Facebook, with its hundreds of millions of users, or YouTube, where 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute, would now be accountable for all content posted on their sites. As a result, websites would be discouraged from engaging in speech or from providing a forum where others can do the same. That, in turn, will stifle innovation--the lifeblood of the economy. One study showed that among 200 venture capitalists and angel investors, almost all would stop funding digital media intermediaries if these laws are enacted.
Setting aside the burden the laws would impose on the freedom of speech and innovation, they don't even make practical sense. Trying to block content online is tantamount to blocking the Mississippi River with a two-by-four. It can't be done. Countries like Iran routinely censor content, yet information still flows through--oftentimes with the help of the United States. This attempt to crack down on pirated material is a futile effort by industries that are suffering at the hands of a technology that has surpassed it, much like when Hollywood was up in arms over VCRs in the 1980s and when the music industry threw a fit over MP3 players in the late 1990s.
The Internet is the greatest engine for free speech and innovation ever known to humankind. Certainly its power can be used for good as well as bad, but censoring content, jeopardizing the security of the Internet, and stifling innovation is not the answer for protecting intellectual property rights.