Websites Go Black to Protest Internet Censorship Bill

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Common Dreams

Websites Go Black to Protest Internet Censorship Bill

Organizations in opposition to bills fear openness of Internet at stake

by
Common Dreams staff

UPDATE: The Hill reports that five senators have withdrawn their support for the Senate's Protect IP Act in the wake of massive online protests.

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Thousands of websites have gone dark today in protest of anti-piracy bills in Congress.

The proposed bills, SOPA in the House and the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate, were written to stop online copyright infringement, say supporters. But opponents of the bills believe they would lead to unnecessary censorship. "At stake," writes Tim Karr of Free Press, "is everyone's democratic right to information."

One of the websites on strike today is the English version of Wikipedia. Visitors going to the site see the message:

"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."

The Huffington Post reports:

Encyclopedia giant Wikipedia, popular news-sharing site reddit, browser pioneer Mozilla, photo-sharing favorite Twitpic and even ICanHazCheezburger.com are blocking access to content throughout Wednesday, symbolizing what the bill may allow content creators to do to sites they accuse of copyright infringement. Other websites, including Google, are expressing solidarity with the protests by featuring anti-SOPA content on home pages.

The online protests are being joined by a physical demonstration in New York City, where thousands of representatives from the city's tech industry plan to demonstrate outside the offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.),co-sponsors of the Senate version of SOPA, beginning at 12:30 p.m. As pressure has mounted, both have expressed willingness to compromise.

Politico reports:

...some of the Internet’s most recognizable brands believe SOPA and PIPA would saddle cyberspace with restrictions that will change the openness of the Internet while thwarting the next generation of Twitters and Facebooks.

Participating Wednesday are thousands of websites representing a broad swath of the Web community — from popular video games like Minecraft, to sites such as Failblog, not to mention individual Facebook pages and blogs.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation details how the bills violate White House principles supporting free speech and innovation:

In addition to going after websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement, a proposal in SOPA will allow the government to target sites that simply provide information that could help users get around the bills’ censorship mechanisms. Such a provision would not only amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint against protected speech, but would severely damage online innovation. And contrary to claims by SOPA’s supporters, this provision—at least what’s been proposed so far—applies to all websites, even those in the U.S.

As First Amendment expert Marvin Ammori points out, “The language is pretty vague, but it appears all these companies must monitor their sites for anti-circumvention so they are not subject to court actions ‘enjoining’ them from continuing to provide ‘such product or service.’” That means social media sites like Facebook or YouTube—basically any site with user generated content—would have to police their own sites, forcing huge liability costs onto countless Internet companies. This is exactly why venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass. Websites would be forced to block anything from a user post about browser add-ons like DeSopa, to a simple list of IP addresses of already-blocked sites.

Perhaps worse, EFF has detailed how this provision would also decimate the open source software community. Anyone who writes or distributes Virtual Private Network, proxy, privacy or anonymization software would be negatively affected. This includes organizations that are funded by the State Department to create circumvention software to help democratic activists get around authoritarian regimes’ online censorship mechanisms. Ironically, SOPA would not only institute the same practices as these regimes, but would essentially outlaw the tools used by activists to circumvent censorship in countries like Iran and China as well.

The “Vigilante” Provision

Another dangerous provision in PIPA and SOPA that hasn’t received a lot of attention is the “vigilante” provision, which would grant broad immunity to all service providers if they overblock innocent users or block sites voluntarily with no judicial oversight at all. The standard for immunity is incredibly low and the potential for abuse is off the charts. Intermediaries only need to act “in good faith” and base their decision “on credible evidence” to receive immunity.

As we noted months ago, this provision would allow the MPAA and RIAA to create literal blacklists of sites they want censored. Intermediaries will find themselves under pressure to act to avoid court orders, creating a vehicle for corporations to censor sites—even those in the U.S.—without any legal oversight.[...]

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