The future of internet freedom left in the dark

Opponents of the US web regulations that inspired the Wikipedia blackout have some pretty illiberal tendencies, too.

Nothing has watered down the term ‘revolution’ more than its promiscuous use in discussions about web innovation. Developments in internet technology, as well as protests organised online, are widely celebrated by activists, entrepreneurs and governments as ‘revolutionary’. But a debate about proposed internet regulations in the US has shown just how many conflicting interests are tangled up in Web 2.0 and just how cavalier an attitude to liberty many of the supposed champions of internet freedoms have.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are designed to crack down on copyright infringement and trafficking in counterfeit goods. The main targets are foreign ‘rogue websites’, piracy sites that are hosted abroad and are therefore currently outside the reach of US law. One example is the Pirate Bay, a Swedish file-sharing website where users can download films and other digital content.

The bills have generated a high-profile battle between content creators (record labels, movie studios, TV networks) and internet companies (open-source platforms, search engines, social networks). But although opponents of SOPA/PIPA have come across as brave defenders of the Web 2.0 revolution, arguing that the bills would hamper online dynamism and reduce freedom of expression, their protest is not some kind of altruistic campaign. Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are mainly looking out for their own interests. And, in fact, in some instances, the anti-SOPA/PIPA lobby has itself adopted a curiously authoritarian approach. More on this later.

The most contentious aspect of SOPA/PIPA is that the bills compel internet service providers (ISPs) to use Domain Name Service (DNS)-blocking and filtering to prevent US web surfers from accessing certain sites. This is a controversial technique that has been strongly criticised when deployed by other governments in Asia and the Middle East. The bills also disallow search engines like Google from listing ‘rogue’ sites in their results, and payment processing sites like eBay and PayPal would not be allowed to transmit money to flagged sites. In other words, the bills involve a two-pronged strategy: prevent US companies from providing services to rogue sites and prevent US citizens from accessing those sites.

Under current laws, websites are not liable for damages as long as they remove pirated content when they are notified by the copyright holder. Internet companies have argued that SOPA and PIPA place unreasonable demands on them to monitor the material hosted on their sites. Back in November, several companies, including Google, Twitter and Facebook, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to express their concerns. And today, hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, Mozilla, Reddit, WordPress and Boing Boing, are ‘on strike’, shutting down their services for 24 hours.

These campaigns have had some success. SOPA, which was introduced in the House of Representatives, has effectively been halted after opposition from the White House over the weekend. But PIPA, the Senate’s version of the bill, is up for a vote on 24 January. As the Digital Trends website explains, PIPA does not require search engines to remove foreign rogue sites from their indexes and it requires greater court intervention to try and block an accused website. But, just like SOPA, PIPA does include the controversial DNS re-routing and blocking. However, in a further sign of success for the internet companies’ campaign, now even the Motion Picture Association of America, one of the strongest SOPA/PIPA supporters, has said that DNS-filtering is ‘off the table’.

SOPA and PIPA are indeed anathema to the age of Web 2.0, which is characterised by user-generated content. A site like Wikipedia, for instance, relies on users uploading, editing and monitoring content and the site’s creation and success would have been far less likely if SOPA/PIPA had been in place. In that sense, the 24-hour internet strike sends a powerful message about what would happen if the pro-SOPA/PIPA lobby got their way: sections of the web would simply black out, disappear from view.

Yet a central complaint of the Silicon Valley signatories to the New York Times letter is that the bills place unfair responsibilities on internet companies, hampering their productivity as a result. The bills, the letter said, ‘would expose law-abiding US internet and technology companies to new and uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites’. It’s hardly a rallying call for web users’ freedoms. Instead, the companies urge US lawmakers to come up with other, less inconvenient and less costly ways of combating foreign websites. The letter says: ‘We support the bills’ stated goals - providing additional enforcement tools to combat foreign “rogue” websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement or counterfeiting.’ Even if you think piracy and illegal file-sharing are bad things, the acceptance of the concept of a ‘rogue’ website indicates that the tech giants do not oppose, in principle, the rolling out of government clampdowns on the web.

Other SOPA opponents have taken the liberty to shut down websites that they don’t like in the name of stopping the government from shutting down websites it doesn’t approve of. Link-sharing website Reddit led a boycott against the domain registrar Go Daddy for supporting SOPA and then decided to try to unseat a member of Congress who supports the bill. Reddit users picked out Congressman Paul Ryan - but, as it turned out, Ryan had not actually come out in support of SOPA.

It is a good thing that the tech giants’ concerted campaign caught the attention of the White House, as SOPA will likely be scrapped as a result. Let’s hope PIPA follows suit. Yet it’s also worth noting the false dichotomies of the SOPA/PIPA debate. It has been posed as a war between money-hungry, creativity-quelling media moguls on the one hand and fun-loving, freedom-defending Silicon Valley companies and open-source enthusiasts on the other. But the idea that the US government should outline the perimeters for ‘good’ and ‘rogue’ content, or that some internet users should take it upon themselves to shut down websites, seems more reactionary than webolutionary.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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