Wikipedia blackout and IP protection

Beginning at midnight (EST) on January 18, 2012, Wikipedia – arguably the most popular free online encyclopedia- blacked out use of the English site. Instead, users have the ability to learn more about SOPA and PIPA and what these Acts could mean for sites like Wikipedia.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate respectively. Their goal is to prevent copyright infringement by foreign websites that copy information (including media) and re-post or sell it without permission from the owners of the copyrighted material.

Opponents of the bills do not argue against what the legislation sets out to accomplish. In fact, Wikipedia claims to be an aggressive supporter of intellectual property protection and Wikipedians (contributors to the website content) are diligent about monitoring their pages and removing infringing content. The opposition to the bills is directed at the vague language and two frightening caveats that threaten online innovation: (1) that the government would be able to target sites that provide information on how to get around the censorship mechanisms in the bills and (2) that companies would be responsible for monitoring their sites to avoid court actions that would prohibit further use of their product or service. This means that sites with user-generated content, including social media sites like Facebook or YouTube, would be forced to police their own sites – a huge cost and liability, especially to sites owned and operated by small companies. With so much liability, venture capitalists would be more reluctant to invest in online startups, thus stifling internet innovation.

Another interesting effect of the bills is the impact on open source software that writes or distributes anonymization, proxy or privacy software. The software is used by organizations funded by the State Department to create circumventation software that help activists get around online censorship mechanisms imposed by authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Iran. The bills would outlaw the tools used to circumvent censorship in these countries in order to help the general public in these countries enjoy the free exchange of information that those in democratic nations are privy to every day. Some argue that prohibiting the software is equitable to the regimes’ censorship mechanisms.

How does this affect big sites like Wikipedia and Facebook? The provisions would force these sites to actively monitor every linked site for potentially infringing content. If Wikipedia links to a site with infringing content, it would be at risk or being forced offline entirely.

There is certainly action that should be taken to stop foreign websites from infringing on protected material and capitalizing on this theft of intellectual property. This is the basis for IP law. However, as Wikipedia and other opponents to the SOPA and PIPA would argue, any action isn’t necessarily the right action if those steps would damage free and open internet and users’ rights to free expression and information exchange. The Obama Administration stated that it would not support a bill “that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”  Wikipedia is encouraging supporters to speak out against the bills. You can learn more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sipa.

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