Wikipedia’s English pages went dark today. So did Reddit, the social bookmarking site. Google slapped a black band on its masthead, not unlike censorship blackouts that appear on printed newspapers in repressive countries. Wired turned its front page into a kaleidoscope of censorship.
The protests are in response to the Stop Online Piracy Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. The bills are designed to discourage or fight online piracy. But they would give the federal government a power it’s never had before: to block Americans from accessing websites the government determines to be using pirated material, such as music, movies or television shows. That power would also, by extension, be in the hands of the music and entertainment industries, which support the bills.
Tech companies such as Google and Wikipdia have been marshaling public opposition to the bills, fearing that the measures open the way for a form of government regulation of the internet more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes–where censoring the internet, blocking access to sites or filtering them is common practice–than with the United States. While the bills’ intent appears defensible (online piracy hurts the ability of artists and creators of intellectual property to make a living) their unintended consequences were not vetted by House and Senate committees that approved the bills last year, with little controversy at the time.
“Under the proposed legislation,” the Times reports, “if a copyright holder like Warner Brothers discovers that a foreign site is focused on offering illegal copies of songs or movies, it could seek a court order that would require search engines like Google to remove links to the site and require advertising companies to cut off payments to it. Internet companies fear that because the definitions of terms like “search engine” are so broad in the legislation, Web sites big and small could be responsible for monitoring all material on their pages for potential violations — an expensive and complex challenge. They say they support current law, which requires Web sites with copyright-infringing content to take it down if copyright holders ask them to, leaving the rest of the site intact. Google, which owns YouTube and other sites, received five million requests to remove content or links last year, and it says it acts in less than six hours if it determines that the request is legitimate.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, had supported the legislation until this morning. He’s backed off. “As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs,” Rubio wrote in a statement disseminated on Facebook. “However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies.” The words closely resemble those from the White House, which oppose the bills in some regards.
“Therefore,” Rubio continued, “I have decided to withdraw my support for the Protect IP Act. Furthermore, I encourage Senator Reid to abandon his plan to rush the bill to the floor. Instead, we should take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides, and come up with new legislation that addresses Internet piracy while protecting free and open access to the Internet.”
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