MANILA, Philippines — On Wednesday, online crowdsourced encyclopedia Wikipedia took a bold step against Internet censorship by restricting access to its English site, in protest of pending anti-online piracy bills in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
For 24 hours, one of the top destinations on the Web shut its doors to the world to send a quick yet high impact message to legislators: that it wants a free and open Internet, free from undue control and restraint by government.
Other Internet properties have already followed suit: social bookmarking site Reddit; the popular ICanHasCheezBurger network of blogs; the official WordPress.org site; and photo-sharing site Twitpic, among many others. Others, while not entirely shutting access to their sites, have registered their opposition to the bill, as in the case of Google and Tumblr.
These Internet companies are protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) proposed in the House of Representatives, as well as the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) laid down in the Senate.
But what really is it about SOPA and PIPA that had many of these popular Internet companies rising in arms? And what are the implications in the Philippine cyberspace should the bill be passed into law?
According to UP Law Internet and Society Program Director JJ Disini, the two proposed measures are well-intentioned in that they seek to curb online piracy, which is a rightful claim by intellectual property owners such as movie makers and music producers who had, in the past years, lost market share and profit to the Internet.
While well-intentioned, Disini stressed that the broad and encompassing language of the law could have major implications on businesses and entities even in the Philippines, since the bills primarily seek to restrict access to foreign-based websites that host illegal content.
Specifically, the law seeks to restrict access in the U.S. of sites that propagate illegal content through the use of Domain Name System (DNS) blocking.
“If you own a site here in the Philippines which, as they have determined, sells, or distributes pirated content, they can request Internet service providers in the US to shut down the access to your site,” the UP Law professor told InterAksyon.com in a phone interview.
But the provisions in the bills actually go further than that. IP holders and law-enforcement units will also be given the right to go after websites “enabling or facilitating” piracy should SOPA or PIPA eventually become part of US statute.
“For example, in the case of Google, everything can be searched through [its search engine]. If, for any reason, you are looking for pirated content, your first stop would be Google. If Google is seen to be facilitating piracy through its results, they can shut down Google’s entire search engine,” Disini explained.
The lawyer pointed out that the same can be applied on just about any Website, especially those that allow user-generated content such as social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.
In short, by just posting a link on Facebook that leads to a site hosting illegal content could lead to the shutdown of the entire social network — this in effect, has sweeping repercussions to the right to freedom of expression.
“It’s like a sledgehammer, an execution. The coverage of the law is very broad for a problem that is so specific,” Disini stressed.
Rep. Sigfrido Tinga, chairman of the House Committee on ICT, echoed Disini’s sentiments: “In the bill’s current form it will present a solution that will be worse than the problem it is trying to solve,” Tinga said in a text message.
“SOPA looks to be anti-innovation and serves to protect primarily the interests of big businesses,” he added.
Stuns innovation, online commerce
According to Disini, the bills have a big chance of restraining innovation especially at a time when Internet companies such as Google and Facebook — which started out as mere start-ups in Silicon Valley — are fuelling innovation through the Internet.
“The concern is innovation. What if you are doing something but in the opinion of the IP owners is that it violates their rights? They can easily shut access to your site from the U.S.,” Disini said.
“But what they don’t understand is that, though the bill is only applicable to foreign websites, the Internet is very connected. Iisa lang ang infrastructure, so tatamaan at tataamaan ang lahat, (There’s only one infrastructure, so it will definitely hit everyone) ” he added.
In addition, groups opposed to the bill have argued that since Internet companies could easily be sanctioned by merely hosting links to prohibited content — even without their prior knowledge — the practice of self-censorship among them would increase.
This would lead to fewer technology startups actually forging into the marketplace because of a riskier legal environment for them.
And in the case of the Philippines, which has a technology startup ecosystem that has yet to reach maturity, the bill’s passage could only spell early death for technopreneurs who are brave enough to forge into the U.S. market.
Specifically, publishers of digital content — ebook publishers, independent film makers and content providers — would have to face much greater scrutiny from traditionally lenient Web platforms such as YouTube and WordPress before having their works published, according to Web Safety Philippines Founder and Social Web advocate Sonnie Santos.
“Presently, these hosting, sharing and networking sites do not hold your content in moderation because they are shielded from lawsuits from copyright holders,” Santos said in a blog post.
“However, if SOSA or PIPA will be enacted into law, these companies can be sued for the activity and content of its users,” he added.
Website owners and bloggers are also on the target line, according to Santos, especially those who generate revenue from their online properties. Once found to be hosting information that violates U.S. copyright laws, these sites “will be blocked and inaccessible to American users.”
“This [means] you will lose traffic from the U.S., [and you] will not be indexed by U.S. based search engines,” he said. “[You will be] unable to generate revenue from the U.S., and [you will] not [be] allowed to advertise or do [online] business in the U.S.”
While the bills have yet to be voted upon in both chambers of Congress, many camps have already expressed opposition to it — including Wikipedia, Reddit and other web destinations that joined Wednesday’s blackout.
Even the White House, in a statement made last week, had registered opposition to the two bills in their current form.
“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 cyber-security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” the White House said.
But even if the two proposed measures eventually fail to see the light of day, Wikipedia said it will remain vigilant about similar measures that seek to undermine the dynamic culture of the Internet.
“The reality is that we don’t think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem,” Wikipedia stressed.
“All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation seeking to regulate the Internet in other ways while hurting our online freedoms,” it added.
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