If freedom of expression, privacy and innovation online matter to you, it's time to pay attention to what's happening in Congress right now. There's a gathering storm over bills proposed in the United States House of Representatives and Senate that have the potential to significantly hinder innovation, free speech and cybersecurity on the Internet in the name of fighting online piracy.
As the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) highlights in its new summary of the problems and implications H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, "SOPA sweeps much more broadly and would chill online innovation and expression by creating major new litigation risks for service providers currently protected by the DMCA safe harbor."
SOPA is "really a Trojan horse that might be better named the Social Media Surveillance Act," said Leslie Harris, CEO of CDT, in a press conference today. "Expect it to have a devastating effect on social media content and expression."
That the proposed bill has advanced with significant bipartisan support, along with PROTECT IP Act in the Senate, shows that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders against 20th century institutions whose quest for copyright protection would leave collateral damage in the form of human right defenders and entrepreneurs. "Any kind of online communication tool that allows users to post and share material" online are included under this bill, said David Sohn, senior counsel at CDT. "The definitions are so broad that any general purpose platform can be declared 'dedicated to theft.'" It is "basically a new hunting license for copyright trolls," he said.
There are also significant cybersecurity risks posed by SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act that policy makers should consider, writes Allan A. Friedman, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. There are "very real threats to cybersecurity in a small section of both bills in their attempts to execute policy through the Internet architecture. While these bills will not "break the Internet," they further burden cyberspace with three new risks. First, the added complexity makes the goals of stability and security more difficult. Second, the expected reaction of Internet users will lead to demonstrably less secure behavior, exposing many American Internet users, their computers and even their employers to known risks. Finally, and most importantly, these bills will set back other efforts to secure cyberspace, both domestically and internationally. "
The House Judicial Committee will hold a hearing on H.R. 3261 on Wednesday, November 2011. Many people and websites around the Internet will be participating in "American Censorship Day" during the hearings.
Internet giants awake
As the Washington Post reported this morning, the MPAA, RIAA and U.S. Chamber, who all support the bill, are now publicly aligned against Internet companies like AOL, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn, Mozilla and Zynga on the "Stop Online Piracy Act."
The letter those Internet companies sent to Congress today is embedded below.
As Declan McCullagh reported for CNET today, the SOPA copyright bill's backers include the Republican or Democratic heads of all the relevant House and Senate committees, and groups as varied as the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO." Civil liberties groups like the EFF have strenuously opposed SOPA on the grounds that it is a "war on software freedom and Internet innovation which would be an "utter catastrophe" for the free and open source software community that has sustained the growth of seminal technologies like Linux or the Apache Web server.
That said, there are representatives in Congress who are opposing the bills. In the Senate, Senator Ron Wyden has been an outspoken opponent of the PROTECT IP Act. I spoke with him this fall about the issue at the Web 2.0 Summit in the interview below:
In the House, Representatives Issa and Lofgren sent a 'Dear Colleague' letter opposing SOPA to Congressional leaders. Today, Representatives Eshoo, Lofgren, Paul, Doggett, Honda, Miller, Thompson, Matsui, Doyle and Polis sent a letter opposing SOPA to the leaders of the House Judiciary Committee.
A grave threat to the Internet commons
To put some of the issues here in perspective, look back to an interview with Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler from March this year. While we talked then about the eG8 Summit, his observations are no less relevant when it comes to SOPA. What's at stake for the open Internet today?
It's "what's been at stake for over 15 years: the possibility that a coalition of forces who are afraid of the internet will shut it down," said Benkler. "There is still a very powerful counter argument, one that says both for innovation and for freedom, we need an open Net. Both for growth and welfare, and for democracy and participation, we need to make sure that the Internet remains an open Internet, remains a commons we all share, remains neutral at all layers, the physical layer, at the logical layer, at the data layer, at the content layer - at all of these layers, we must have an open Internet.
"That's still very strong, but it seems more threatened today than it has been for five or six years. We seem to be closer to the risk we were at in the late 90s, than the risk we were at five years ago."
I saw Harvard professor Yochai Benkler again at the Club de Madrid annual conference this past week and talked more with him about the challenges to the Internet as we know it today. In particular, we talked about the Stop Online Privacy Act and the PROTECT IP Act before Congress. He mentioned that his paper on the latter bill had been receiving more attention and was more relevant in the context of the introduction of the former bill. The paper compares the attack on Wikileaks to key elements of PROTECT IP on a deep level.
To what extent do politicians need to understand the relationship of politics and an open Internet? "The primary reason we need to support the Net is because it is a foundational part of how we have our democracy," he said in France.
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