This Wednesday, Congress is considering a law that gives the US government (and any private corporation) the power to block any website, remove it from search engines, and cut off its sources of funding.
Leading civil liberties and tech policy organizations are organizing an internet-wide day of protest in response, inviting sites to turn their logos black and drive people to contact their members of Congress. It's called American Censorship Day (americancensorship.org and #USACensored on Twitter) and sites can participate by turning their logos black on Wednesday or by running "website blocked" splash pages directing users to contact Congress.
Insiders say that HR 3261 or the "Stop Online Piracy Act" -- which enjoys the support of both parties, the Chamber of Commerce, drug companies, Hollywood, and even several unions -- is likely to pass barring an unprecedented uproar from the public and the tech community. The protest aims to create just that.
(We want as many sites as possible to participate, and we're making it easy for them to do so: If you're interested in taking part, [click here] and email us at email@example.com)
SOPA is hurtling through Congress because it aligns a number of narrow corporate interests. Hollywood wants the power to shut down entire file hosting sites and sue social media websites into submission. Media companies want the power to block streams of sporting events. Drug companies want the power to block Americans' access to affordable drugs from Canadian pharmacies. The net result? America's Internet could careen away from the principles of freedom and openness it embodies -- and towards the likes of China's, with the government and corporations blocking Americans' access to large swaths of the web.
Its Senate cousin -- the PROTECT IP Act -- has already passed through committee and is awaiting a floor vote. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have asked Congress to kill the legislation, but the interests pushing for it -- the Chamber of Commerce, Hollywood, Big Pharma -- wield indescribable power in Washington.
Says Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, "This is a dangerous bill. It is an unwarranted expansion of government power to protect one special interest, the Big Media companies, would give Internet Service Providers a way to evade open Internet rules on the basis of 'protecting' copyright and allow advertisers and Internet registrars carte blanche to close down a site for the vaguest of reasons."
Or, put more simply: "This bill gives Hollywood a chance to kick that pesky Internet off their lawn," said Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director at The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, companies could successfully block a website over just one infringing link posted by any user. It could be a copyright claim, a trademark claim, a patent claim (technology patents are notoriously overbroad) or even or right of publicity claim, with celebrities suing site over the use of a name or photo. If the action is successful, the site is blacklisted: American ISPs can be sued to block users' access, search engines and other sites can be sued to take down links to it, and advertisers and payment processors will be forced to cancel its accounts.
One result of the legislation will be a storm of lawsuits and an extremely hostile legal environment to small startups planning the next Youtube or Twitter.
Websites are currently protected from liability for users' posts, as long as they take down infringing material. Sites like Twitter and Youtube (or indeed almost any site that allows user comments, including this one) owe their existence to these protections. SOPA throws these protections out the window, replacing them with an environment where any social media startup (and its investors) will have to count on hundreds of lawsuits, any one of which could shut down their site.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) is calling it "the end of the Internet" -- and that's barely an exaggeration. The sites we use and love the most are the ones most at risk, and the basic principle of open access is under attack.
If you have a website of your own, you can get everything you need to participate at americancensorship.org -- just paste a snippet of code in your site. If you work in tech, try to get your own company to participate and spread the word to friends. This bill is an assault on internet freedom and a direct threat to the livelihood of tech entrepreneurs and anyone who works in tech. And the crazy part? Most don't even know about it.
For more information on how to participate, write us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit AmericanCensorship.org
Follow Tiffiniy Cheng on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fightfortheftr