By Satarupa Paul
On 18 January, the standard white background of Wikipedia went black, urging its users to ‘imagine a world without free knowledge’, and a shiver ran down the spines of netizens as the realisation of such a possibility dawned. For 24 hours, the online encyclopaedia blacked out all its content to protest attempts by the US Congress to regulate the Internet.
Any search attempt on its portal led users to the relevant page only for a split second before re-directing them to the dark page with a message that read, “For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopaedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet.”
The twin Congressional bills — Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) — that have been proposed are highly contentious, garnering severe criticism since their introduction last year. GovTrack.us, a legislative tracking website that helps keep a tab on activities of the US Congress, broadly outlines the objective of SOPA as ‘to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation by combating the theft of US property, and for other purposes (sic)’. Similarly, it defines PIPA as ‘a bill to prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property…’
> “Technological changes and advancements necessitate a change in business models and not in imposing draconian measures”. Lawrence Liang
Rounded in a summary, the bills may almost sound like noble attempts to stop online piracy of copyrighted content, but delve between the lines and the horrors will only start to unfold. Little wonder then that Internet giant Google and prominent players like WordPress, Reddit, Craigslist and many others joined the protest against these bills.
Dr Anja Kovacs of The Internet Democracy Project, Bangalore, feels that if passed, the bills would simply mean the end of the Internet as we know of it today. She explains the fine print and lists down the principal causes of worry. “First, the bills will not only shut down websites that are allegedly involved in copyright infringement directly, but will also target sites where any copyrighted content is shared by users,” she says.
That means if you share even a legally bought song or video on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, or simply comment on a movie clip, the social networking or the user-content website will be under legal obligation to remove the content without notifying you. While this will result in censorship that will impede the users’ right to share and access information, it will incur massive liability cost for these websites.
Kovacs adds that the provisions of the bills will allow the US government to filter domain names, shutting down the ones that infringe copyright laws. Technically, they can only take down domains in their own country and for a while, the rest of the world may breathe a sigh of relief. But, she explains, it doesn’t stop there. The repercussions are more widespread than one would have previously gauged.
“For instance, a website in India may use content copyrighted by a US company. To access the content of this site, a user may have to pay through say, PayPal. Now, the US will not be able to shut the domain of this Indian website, but the bills will compel intermediaries like payment systems and ad networks to cease their business with the website,” she points out. It will, thus, attack the revenue backbone and cripple any website in India, Spain or Australia from functioning on its own.
While large Internet corporations have the big bucks to save themselves, the bills will deal a fatal blow to start-ups and damage online innovation. Ayush Ghai, co-founder of Metataste.com, an Indian mash-up website that uses Hollywood film-clips, synopsis, photos and posters, is wary of the repercussions of the bills. Metataste allows users to add content in the form of YouTube videos and Ghai feels, “If SOPA comes into play, then we will have to monitor what users are sharing on our site and we do not have the resources for that. It may also prompt the Internet service providers and ad agencies to block us. Even our server is in the US!” Hence, smaller fishes like Metataste will have to pay staggering amounts to buy the data used on their sites or shut shop.
The Wikipedia blackout may have brought out the many underlying facets of the draconian bills to light, but backed by the powerful lobbies of Hollywood and the music industry among others, the US Senate will bring PIPA to vote on January 24. “We support the legislations against the online piracy of content,” says Mandar Gupte, CFO, Universal Music India. “Piracy has greatly affected the functioning and survival of music companies, musicians and other creative fraternity. The daylight robbery needs to stop and hence, it is imperative that strong actions need to be taken on global level,” he says.
But Lawrence Liang, Intellectual Property expert and lawyer at Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, says that technological changes and advancements necessitate a change in business models and not in imposing draconian measures. “The same lobbies created uproar even when televisions came into the picture. They argued that TV would eat into their main revenue source of theatres. But they found a way to work around it. Even now, alternative revenue generation models exist. They just need to explore them instead of fragmenting the global Internet that exists now,” he opines.