The Great Firewall of China, a nationwide system of digital barriers that represses websites with information contrary to the whims of the Communist Party, muzzles the Internet, limiting the Chinese people’s access to information and the happenings of the world outside of their nation.
The United States government has consistently opposed the Internet barriers of authoritarian regimes, including China. During the Iranian Green Movement of 2009-10, the U.S. and many other members of the international community slammed Iran for cracking down on protestors who used the Internet to combat the Khamenei regime. During the Arab Spring, America and its allies aligned themselves with many Middle Eastern protestors who, equipped with smart phones, unleashed a torrent of footage from repressive regime crackdowns. This outpouring of vivid photos and videos contributed to the downfall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Despite the America’s longstanding public commitment to freedom of expression, especially over the Internet, members of the U.S. Congress are considering two controversial bills that would fundamentally restrict the Internet, endangering freedom of expression and muzzling the greatest force for knowledge and democratization the world has ever seen.
The bills, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT-IP Act, would establish broad regulatory power over the Internet and allow copyright holders to censor websites for posting copyrighted material or links to copyrighted material. The copyright holders, largely entertainment conglomerates, would also be able to sue search engines, blogs and others in order to have these pirating websites removed from their listings.
In protest of these bills, around 10,000 websites including Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia created by users, and Reddit, the Internet’s largest content-sharing community, have shut down or replaced much of their content with details of the bill for the day. The search giant Google has joined the protest by blacking out its logo, a remarkable stand for a company that handles more than 3 billion searches per day. Facebook also announced its opposition to the bills earlier today.
While we agree that Internet piracy needs to be addressed by legislative action, SOPA and PIPA do not directly confront this issue. Instead, the bills could provide the foundation for the Great Firewall of America, limiting the rights of freedom of expression and the people’s ability to access information.
The bills are threats to the open Internet, a critical tool for educational institutions that allows faculty members and students to research topics and access resources for improved learning experiences. Restricting information-sharing websites like Wikipedia, one of the most important tools for research at colleges and universities, would seriously hinder academic achievement and the ability of students to turn toward outside sources to better understand classroom material.
But the effects of SOPA and PIPA would be felt internationally, not just in the classroom. The bills have the global community on edge, with the European Parliament passing a resolution in November criticizing SOPA. More than 40 different human rights organizations have come out against SOPA and PIPA. In the U.S., 110 law professors in an open letter to Congress described SOPA as the “most ill-advised and destructive intellectual property legislation in recent memory.”
If passed, these laws would allow corporations to shut down foreign websites that they believe are not properly handling copyrighted material, which poses a threat to Internet innovation and startups by limiting experimentation.
YouTube began with people posting original as well as copyrighted material. That organic process allowed the website to grow over time, resulting in a vibrant video-sharing website that has instituted measures to remove or disable copyrighted material. Imagine if, instead of being allowed to flourish in an unhampered environment, YouTube had been sued out of existence by entertainment corporations. That is what the Internet companies and entrepreneurs fear would happen if these two bills are passed by the House and Senate.
SOPA and PIPA, by restricting Internet startups, could hinder the development of one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. and global economies. The Internet has become the modern shopping center, where millions of transactions take place every day. And Internet startup companies in Silicon Valley are hiring, meaning more employment opportunities for a nation still wrestling with the aftermath of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Regulation is needed in order to handle the piracy issue, but the U.S. government should institute smart policies that do not hamper economic growth or limit the rights protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forms the foundation of our democratic society.
These bills could endanger the American democratic process by fundamentally restricting the free flow of information. James Madison, who has been called the “father of the Constitution,” once wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Without free and easy access to information, knowledge cannot be acquired, and knowledge forms the plateau from which citizens engage in self-government. SOPA and PIPA would limit the people’s access to knowledge by installing corporate barons over whole segments of the Internet, thereby choking off the free flow information and jeopardizing the democratic process.
The language of the anti-piracy bills must be rewritten in order to clarify how they will impact the Internet and to limit their negative impact on the American democratic process. Search engines and online directories should not be compelled to delete domains that allow users to share information, some of which may be copyrighted. Furthermore, it is unrealistic for websites that allow information sharing, such as Reddit, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, to be required to screen the millions of links posted each day. Property rights must be respected, but in a realistic manner.
The Internet is the watershed invention of our time, a vibrant, pulsing web of interconnectedness through which all knowledge and information can be communicated and shared. It is alive and organic, something that needs to be pruned and shaped but never axed.
Instead of putting the Internet’s symbolic neck in the noose, congressional representatives and senators should act responsibly, listen to the cries of the people and back down from their support of SOPA and PIPA. Piracy of intellectual property needs to be addressed, but SOPA and PIPA would do more harm than good.