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Web changes approach with new act

Credit: Christa Hester/Forum Editor Credit: Christa Hester/Forum Editor
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As the Occupy protests continue to grow across the country, the American government is once again demonstrating both its commitment to corporations’ interests and its disconnect from the average American.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a new bill currently being debated in Congress, could give the government the power to censor and block access to any website that hosts copyrighted information of any kind. The driving force behind this act is the entertainment industry, which believes that by blocking access to sites like thepiratebay.org or mediafire.com it can stop internet users from pirating the music, television, and movies that are the industry’s lifeblood. There are a few significant problems with this train of thought, however.

First, the industry is assuming that, by removing easy access to illegal downloading, people who would have pirated a song or movie will be forced to buy it instead. This is a truly short-sighted way of thinking. Although blocking the domain names of torrent or direct-download websites will stop infrequent downloaders from pirating files, more frequent downloaders have become used to getting their entertainment for free and are not likely to start spending money on it. Furthermore, the bill would not stop more dedicated pirates, who could access these websites via their IP addresses, the unique strings of numbers that a site’s domain name represents. Essentially, SOPA would not punish or stop those who hurt the entertainment industry the most.

Secondly, the scope of this bill goes far beyond reasonable efforts to restrict piracy and into the realm of the ludicrous. It would censor any website that hosts copyrighted content. That doesn’t just mean sites that host illegal downloads, although those would certainly be doomed. Remember that funny Doctor Who .GIF you reblogged on Tumblr? That’s all the cause this bill would need to block Tumblr’s domain name. That Harry Potter fan fiction you posted on your LiveJournal in high school? Goodbye, LiveJournal. YouTube would be shut down solely because that funny cat video you posted used “Thriller” as background music. Because most social-media and media-sharing websites assume liability for their users’ content, those sites would be forced to censor their users or face a virtual death penalty.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, SOPA would also allow the government to censor any site that offered an opinion which appeared to support piracy, as well as any site that corporations or the government felt wasn’t working hard enough to prevent piracy. This bill has taken online piracy from the realm of the intellectual property debate and made it an issue of First Amendment rights. If this act is passed, the internet as we know it will cease to exist, and a policed, Big Brother-esque web that lacks the freedom, innovation, and security of today’s will replace it. And if other countries choose to follow America’s example and pass similar bills, there is no guarantee that their versions won’t be even more restrictive or punitive.

When people complain about not being able to get on Facebook, their friends joke about “first-world problems.” The passage of SOPA will make something as inane as “Pokemon Profile Picture Month” an issue of basic free-speech rights.