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Would SOPA have a negative affect in the UK?

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Yesterday’s internet ‘blackout’ increased the awareness of the Stop Online Piracy Act which is currently working its way through US Congress. The legislation lost significant support and faces a veto at the hands of President Obama; however, if it did become enforced, what kind of effect would this legislation have outside of the US?

via wokay.com

At first, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about; in fact, hearing that the US government was taking active steps to protect intellectual property, sounded like a good idea! It seems I shared the same attitude with many of my fellow Brits, I mean, why should we care about US legislation? It’s not like it would have any impact on our internet usage here in the UK – or would it?

Many of the sites I visit and use on a daily basis are US-based and incredibly negative towards the legislation; they cite issues ranging from its effect on US economy, US jobs and censorship. Whilst their protesting has received strong international sympathy, I don’t feel that the full potential effect as a non-US internet user has been fully recognised.

To prevent jumping ‘on the bandwagon’, I’ve spent time pulling some research together to show why, even outside US jurisdiction, the international community should be concerned with the likes of SOPA & PIPA.

So, what is US Congress proposing?

To start, this video is a comprehensive overview on the current proposals and how they are going to be implemented:

In a nutshell, SOPA & PIPA are Hollywood-backed anti-piracy legislation for the entertainment industry. However, quite a few questions have been raised about the real scale of the piracy problem within the industry and whether the proposed “significant restructuring of the internet” is really the solution.

Most of the legislation is directed at foreign websites (non-US) dedicated to infringing activities, such as Pirate Bay. However, the bill doesn’t work towards shutting down these sites or stopping pirate activity; in fact, it so vaguely outlines “infringing activities” that almost any internet user could be classed as a criminal.

What are outlined as “infringing activities”?

Chris Heald wrote an article for Mashable.com with a break down of the written bill. It makes an interesting read and raises some serious issues:

“Infringing activities” are not only explicitly breaking copyright, which existing copyright laws already outline; in the case of SOPA, anyone who ‘facilitates’ is also taking part in infringing activities.  Facilitating could mean anything from advertising, to sharing or simply linking!

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is an existing US copyright law (the equivalent of our Digital Economy Act).  The safe harbour provision means copyright owners must notify a company of supposed infringement and give the company 30 days to investigate and have the content removed.  Google, YouTube and most websites already comply with this legislation.

With SOPA enforced, those sites would be considered equally violating copyright.  Any site (including blogs) which uses user-contributed or pre-existing online content and even, as Chris points out, sites which allow comments would need stringent policing to prevent potentially copyrighted material being posted, regardless of which country the site is located in.

To get an idea of scale of the problem, the Neatorama blog has “nearly 40,000 posts and over 311,000 comments” and policing “presents a huge day-to-day operational problem.” That’s just one site! Take into consideration how many users are on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and it’s fair to say we’re looking at a content-filtering nightmare!

I can’t even begin to imagine how Wikipedia would cope; with over 3,831,000+ articles on their English encyclopaedia alone, policing user-contributed material would be a continual challenge and the likelihood is they would fall victim to censorship or, even worse, closure. No more free encyclopaedia! No more social networking!

Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman, said the current proposal would “criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself.”

What about news sites? Dan Gillmor in his recent comment article for the Guardian quite rightly points out that, “since all journalism and entertainment is built upon borrowing from other creators, nothing new could be legally created without permission.” That may keep the Rupert Murdochs of this world happy, but that would well and truly effect the broadcast of international news.

What would be the consequence?

ISP blocking isn’t a new method of anti-piracy; fortunately for us, the European Court of Justice recently ruled that the imposition of an obligation to filter network traffic is contrary to EU law (and thus affects every EU member state). However, that hasn’t stopped entertainment corporations, such as the Motion Picture Association (MPA), taking UK ISPs (BT and Sky) to court to block access to sites. If the UK does become Anti-EU any time soon, we may see more law suits of a similar nature.

For now, if your site is blocked by US ISPs and your primary customers/readers/traffic are US-based, you may have a serious issue on your hands!

Search engine censorship is also not a new concept; just look at Google’s Love-Hate relationship with China. However, there are a few questions that need to be raised, particularly, if Google – that’s an American multinational Internet and software corporation – has to censor its results, would this effect be seen across all their search engines or just the .com?

As for payment providers, Paypal already cause enough controversy with the way they manage their e-commerce users. The scary thing is, you do not have to be notified that your service will terminated in advanced. So, if e-commerce is your main business, you could potentially lose everything you have made.

Don’t get me wrong, these tactics may sound like good practice against anyone selling counterfeit DVDs, pharmaceutical drugs, etc. However, the current bill could easily apply to any small businesses who are not committing copyright infringement knowingly.

Take the home-made boom of 2010/11 and the rise of Etsy.com and Folksy.com as an example. At present, any breach of copyright can just be notified and removed. However, if a single seller on Folksy – A British Craft site – was found to breach SOPA legislation, every user could effectively lose ALL business through the site if Paypal terminated their service. OK, it’s an extreme example, but very possible.

The legislation also takes a guilty before proven innocent stance, making it open for abuse by large corporations making false claims (which already happens) in order to oust their global competition.

Would SOPA have a negative affect in the UK?

SOPA is not all doom and gloom for us foreigners; in fact, a positive twist (one of very few) could be an increase in UK/EU economy.  If internet-related companies are forced to leave the US, we may see the equivalent of Silicone Valley appearing on our side of the Atlantic, creating new jobs and revenue at a time when our economic future is looking grim.

However, if SOPA does go ahead without any changes, we could potentially see a negative impact not only with the loss of e-commerce, but the take-down of social networking sites and potentially any other site which has user-generated content. Can you imagine life without Facebook?

As it currently stands, the SOPA bill is aimed at ‘foreign sites’ (that’s us!) and written so vaguely it goes beyond preventing entertainment industry piracy. The real questions are, can we trust the US with this power that will, undoubtedly, affect the way we use and create business on the internet, regardless of whether we’re outside US jurisdiction? And will we be protected by UK/EU legislation to combat false infringement?

Written by Fuelled by Social Alchemy

19/01/2012 at 2:09 pm

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