At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, several techblogs highlighted legislation being discussed in the US Senate and the House. There are three pieces of legislation in fact, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Digital ENforcement Act (OPEN) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). If passed, they give the US government and corporations the ability to censor the net, all in the name of protecting "creativity", they just have to convince a judge that the site is "dedicated to copyright infringement".
The US government has already wrongly shut down sites without any recourse to the site owner. Under this bill, sharing a video with anything they believe is copyrighted in it, or what sites like YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter do, would be considered illegal behaviour. Because of the sheer volume of video being uploaded by the public, some providers like YouTube are already struggling with take-down notices from entertainment companies. They take down a video first, and then there's a long and complicated procedure before the video is restored...uploaders are guilty first until proved innocent. There have been cases where clips used as part of a fair-use policy in shows like TechNews Today have resulted in entire episodes being taken down.
Other websites like Americancensorship.org have been set up to explain what's going on and gather support to oppose this legislation.
The sad fact is that the fix being proposed won't stop downloading, but it does set a precedent for dangerous government and industry meddling in the way the Internet works. It stifles innovation, shuts out diverse voices at a point where other forms of legitimate downloading are starting to prove their worth.
Apparently, some in Washington DC are beginning to realise what this means. On Saturday Jan 14th, Obama administration officials signaled that the White House would not support parts of the two bills.
While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet. Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected.
Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk. Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios.
The Whitehouse goes on to indicate it will host an online event to get more input. I wonder if that will include discussion of the recent case in the UK of Richard O'Dwyer, a student at the University of Sheffield who faces extradition for providing a site that linked through to US TV shows. So far the UK government has not commented. Whilst the Whitehouse statement has clear arguments against the proposed legislation, I am very concerned at the new legal tools being drawn up and described below.
While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders. That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to the principles outlined above in this response.
To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity. Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing.
Victoria Espinel, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at Office of Management and Budget, Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Howard Schmidt is Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff.
The devil will certainly be in the details. If the BBC World Service or BBC World News is looking for subject matter to debate, then this is surely a great example where an global perspective is needed to resolve the problem.