Jan 24, 2012

The Lonesome Death of the Internet

Conor O’Donovan

Staff Writer


At the end of last week, the Stop Online Piracy Act was put on hold in the United States Congress, followed closely by its counterpart in the Senate; the Protection of IP Act. The fact that these Acts were shelved despite considerable political and corporate support demonstrates the extent of the protest against them. While the efforts of websites such as Google, Reddit and Wikipedia are commendable, the self-congratulatory mood sweeping the Internet over the past couple of days rings slightly hollow. Aside from the distinct possibility of similar legislation emerging in the near future this situation seems symptomatic of a much wider issue. However, the internet is fighting back with many proxies remaining available for use.

By now the more disturbing elements beneath the anti-piracy rhetoric of the SOPA and PIPA bills have been exposed. The passing of the SOPA act would allow intellectual property owners to demand any site be stripped of its advertising and blocked from making transactions with its funding provider. While these seem like reasonable sanctions, said site could also be removed from Google and have its DNS effectively disabled rendering it inaccessible. More unsettling still is that content and funding providers would not need judicial oversight to do this.

Furthermore the “Anti-Circumventional” provisions, perhaps the most controversial, legally oblige sites to censor their content, namely comments, links or other sites indexed by users. This would exert huge costs on websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google while forcing sites without the resources to fund such filtering under. The extra costs involved in ensuring non-liability would also be prohibitive to new sites. Considering that companies and sites that comply with these provisions gain immunity from other provisions, the potential for monopolization increases. What this means for the average Internet user is a loss of control over a significant part of our digital lives.

There is a, perhaps warranted, degree of cynicism about standards of information on the Internet. An act such as SOPA would do nothing to combat unreliable sources however. If anything the censorship imposed would ultimately lead to a lack of diversity in sources. Who is to say that ‘Anti-Circumvention’ will remain purely concerned with anti-SOPA material? On a more universal level there is disillusionment with how social networking is evolving. If SOPA passes there is, after a time, likely to be no alternative to Facebook, let alone emerging innovation.

The blackout protests and petitioning of websites were what brought these acts from obscurity to the scrutiny beneath which they withered. They showed, once again, the Internet is a powerful tool when wielded effectively. It is an invaluable outlet of information and a bastion for passive political protest. Earlier in the year we witnessed the part Facebook and Twitter played in communications in Egypt and then in Libya this year during the insurrections there. In February of last year a baby christened Facebook was born in Egypt.

There are, however, as with any other source of information, issues regarding the distribution and ownership of its content. One cannot maintain any form of functioning network on such a scale without regulation. Thus, most businesses that rely on the use of the internet will work with high-end internet providers, similar to Business ICT, a Melbourne internet provider. Having a good internet provider could give them the assistance they need to continue their business, helping them keep in contact with customers and clients. However, this isn’t directly what people think about when they hear of internet regulation and support since the issues of copyright and intellectual property are routinely hijacked for capital gain outside of economic entitlement. There are, in fact, two sides to the argument.

When considered in terms of other, previous, acts such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which already allow Federal intervention with pirate websites SOPA seems somewhat irrelevant. In the days following the downfall of SOPA, the site Megaupload has gone the way of TVShack and Limewire, in that it has been vetoed. The reason for the controversy surrounding SOPA is more due to its implications rather than its apparent aims. That the website of Lamar Smith, the congressman who proposed SOPA, infringes on copyright under SOPA suggests misinformation verging on incompetence.

What one must ask is what kind of environment would allow an act such as SOPA gather such force. Upon the federal intervention with Megaupload a team of hackers known as Anonymous launched an assault on various public websites such as that of the Justice Department and the French Elysée. Setting aside the predominant culture of not paying for a significant portion of our music and film this malicious retaliation is arguably as damaging as acts such as SOPA.

SOPA and PIPA are not dead. Even if there were not hearings scheduled for February and the bills weren’t still floating around there would be little cause for optimism. Those who have put money into forcing these bills through aren’t going to go away. Most of the politicians and companies who withdrew their support were more concerned with negative publicity than the fate of the Internet. Anonymous’s quest to avenge something they did not even own to begin with will give them significant ammunition next time around.

In the long term the battle for rights over content on the Internet is likely to do more damage than any single piece of legislation. As governments and the content industry continue to provoke each other, the average Internet user and the Internet itself is going to get caught in the middle. The more audacious hackers become in their vigilante operations the more viable heavy handed legislation will seem and vice versa. Potentially the greatest source of information in our history is becoming a warzone.

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