American Censorship Day

Huaou Yan

The holiday season had a new addition this year: yesterday, November 16th, was designated American Censorship Day by a group of organizations, including among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, Demand Progress, and Mozilla, to protest the House Bill 3261, otherwise known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). A combination of two prior Senate bills, SOPA would enable intellectual property owners to notify payment network providers (read: Mastercard, Visa, Paypal, etc.) and internet advertising services of sites they believe are facilitating copyright infringement and require them to suspend services to those sites until complainants receive counter-notification. Meanwhile, the attorney general would be empowered to seek court orders against U.S.-directed foreign internet sites, at which point, domestic internet service providers would be required to block access to those sites. Of course, ISPs and payment network providers are also given immunity for any voluntary blocking of sites that they believe are dedicated to copyright infringement. The full text of the bill can be found here.

Needless to say, the internet is up in arms over the legislation. Among other things, critics have argued that SOPA would give copyright holders massive power to act unilaterally, without ever appearing before a judge, to deprive sites they suspect of facilitating infringement of payment and advertising services; the potential for abuse here is staggering. Furthermore, they argue that bill would supplant the DMCA’s safe harbor against liability for sites that complied with notices that they were hosting infringing material, because those sites are now liable to have their marketing and revenue streams cut off. In allowing the government to order ISPs to block certain internet sites, SOPA has also drawn disturbing comparisons to internet censorship conducted by foreign, authoritarian governments, such as the Great Firewall of China. Of course, the arguments go on and on, and I would advise readers to go check out the official website for American Censorship Day, which does a pretty thorough job of mustering comments and articles from their supporters. (Check out the cool infographic!).

Not surprisingly, I’m inclined to agree with the opposition: SOPA seems to me to be just another piece of legislation created for the benefit of major copyright holders (see the major organizations in support: the usual laundry list that includes the MPAA and RIAA) that rides roughshod over any number of free speech and free information interests that we might have. However, this time, I am enthused by the substantial opposition that SOPA faces: major tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as advocacy organizations such as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (You can find a collection of some of the statements these organizations have given here.)

With any hope (and odds seem good), November 16th, 2012 will just be another day.

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