A web strike has been called, and many web pages will go black, in response to two proposed bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
From a high level, these bills may seem reasonable enough. Their stated purpose is to prevent "piracy," the unlicensed distribution of intellectual property without compensation to rights holders. Pretty much any recorded music can be found online and downloaded for free, as well as a growing number of movies and televison programs. Commercial television programs are routinely recorded and released quickly in digital formats with commercials removed.
The Internet is traditionally a culture with an expectation that content will be free; networks of free distribution of content readily emerged, especially with digital convergence, wherein all media are released in digital formats easy to replicate and redistribute. The growing availability of broadband has meant that content downloads that formerly took hours now take minutes; more and more people are accessing digital content online, legally or not. The Internet has disrupted music, film, and television industries, and while that disruption is not solely attributable to "piracy," it's clearly painful to see a product copied and shared broadly online.
Oddly enough, those that share content get no compensation for their efforts — the content is offered for free. And many take it, if only because it's so much more convenient to do so. They may just as readily pay for downloads or streaming via Netflix or iTunes, or subscribe to content delivery on demand via cable. These legal forms of distribution contribute to the effect of commodifying content, thereby reducing value, another insult to the bottom line of content providers.
Surely it makes sense to pass legislation to protect content providers from outright theft? Wouldn't it make sense to shut down channels of online distribution, and block access to websites that offer pirated content for free? Pursuing copyright infringement through the courts seems insufficient — it hasn't worked — and it's expensive. Wouldn't it be better to take the "bad" sites down?
In fact, there are pretty large issues with this approach, and that's why many Internet experts and 'net-based companies, some of them also content providers, are up in arms. The Internet has thrived as an ecosystem that drives innovation and commerce precisely because it is so frictionless; barriers to entry are low, the means of production inexpensive, and the flow of information unimpeded. You don't have to ask anyone's permission to set up a website or build a web-based company. The Internet has resisted efforts to add obstructions within the network. Even in countries like China, which famously has its "Great Firewall," users find ways to access information.
The approaches suggested by SOPA and PIPA will alter the way the Internet operates. Restricting search engines and domain name services may seem straightforward, but it's not. DNS filters, a key provision of the bills (though evidently dropped from SOPA this week), would result in security risks and performance issues, according to some Internet engineers. Domain name records would be inconsistent and potentially less reliable. Users may be driven to unregulated alternative systems for domain name resolution, avoiding legitimate regulation and management.
There are also nontechnical civil liberties issues. Whole websites could be blocked, even if there is only one instance of alleged infringement, harming a majority of users because of the actions of a minority. Sites may be blocked incorrectly — who's to decide what infringes and what doesn't? What of sites that may facilitate or enable infringement, but don't infringe themselves? Aren't they protected speech?
The legislation could have a chilling effect by making site operators liable for the actions of site users, therefore unwilling to host user-generated content. This could have a huge impact on innovative social media websites and technologies.
The problem here is that these laws were driven — if not created by — content industry lobbyists who don't understand the Internet and are more concerned with protecting the interests associated with older forms of content delivery, versus defining how content delivery can and should work in a digital world. Legislators should drop SOPA and PIPA and have an extended conversation and collaboration with a broad set of stakeholders before they attempt to create policies affecting the Internet.