Lights out!

Published Jan 21, 2012 11:19am
A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop computer screen inside the "Anti-Sopa War Room" at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. — Photo AFP
A blackout landing page is displayed on a laptop computer screen inside the "Anti-Sopa War Room" at the offices of the Wikipedia Foundation in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. — Photo AFP

The ‘blackout’ faced by several internet users may have left them confused after a number of big names of the web, including Wikipedia, Google and Reddit went dark or altered their homepages.

More than 7,000 websites were part of this protest, which was being held against the proposed US anti-piracy legislation that many believe goes too far fighting online copyrights and trademark infringement.

The bills, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US Senate, allow the government to blacklist and/or shutdown all websites that not only may be involved in direct infringement of copyrights, but also those that are thought to “enable or facilitate” acts of infringement.

The bills give the US Justice Department the power to seek court orders requiring search engines such as Google not to render search results for infringing websites.

While such a move would be unprecedented in the United States, it has been used as a tactic in Pakistan in recent years.

In 2007–2008, the country witnessed a political turmoil and campaigns to curb media coverage in Pakistan against a relatively stable backdrop of internet filtering directed at content determined to be blasphemous, secessionist, anti-state, or anti-military.

One of the most widely reported instances of filtering occurred in February 2008, when a government order to prevent access to a YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) resulted in a near global block of the entire YouTube website for around two hours.

During General Pervez Musharraf’s first term as president, military control was applied over the judiciary and the ruling party in the parliament, while print and electronic media were censored where the content was deemed to be anti-government or anti-Islam.

Government repression of media has been particularly acute with regard to Balochi and Sindhi political autonomy, content considered blasphemous, and other anti-state or anti-religious content.

Bloggers across Pakistan objected to the intermittent block on the Blogspot platform and the temporary blocking of Wikipedia in 2006, and initiated a virtual civil society movement to repeal the orders.

Critics say that the US bill has a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy where any foreign site that allows users to upload — or even just link to — content would have to fear being wrongly branded a “rogue site,” effectively shut down and cut off from revenue until it can prove its innocence in a US court.

The measures also give out legal immunity to ad networks and financial institutions that choose, without a court order, to stop placing ads or processing transactions for websites they deem are dedicated to infringing activity.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) acknowledged that the mass online protests against his anti-online piracy bill were causing formerly supportive lawmakers to flee in droves, but said that he was confident that “facts will overcome fears,” and vowed to continue working on “strong legislation” to combat online piracy.

Smith is the architect of SOPA and the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is in charge of marking the bill up — voting on amendments to it — before it is taken to the full House for a vote.

He introduced SOPA to the House in October. Like its sister in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), SOPA would allow the US Attorney General to seek court orders to force the takedown of foreign websites accused of piracy based on the accusations of copyright holders, including Hollywood and the recording industry, which, not surprisingly, have come out strongly in favour of the legislation.

In a statement released to the press, Smith said that “contrary to critics’ claims, SOPA does not censor the internet. It only targets activity that is already illegal, and only targets foreign websites that steal and sell America’s technology, inventions and products. And it is similar to laws that already govern websites based in the US”

Earlier on Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the principle sponsor of PIPA, posted a release of his own designed to address the critics’ complaints that his bill’s language was too broad.

“Websites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Google, Craigslist, eBay, The Huffington Post and Yahoo! do not meet the definition of a website ‘dedicated to infringing activities,’ and the PIPA does not reach websites where only a sub-domain is dedicated to infringement,” he said.

However, more than 100 eminent constitutional scholars have joined fight against these bills, most notable of which is Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe who, in a letter to Congress last week, stated that the bills amount to illegal “prior restraint” because it would suppress speech without a judicial hearing.

Additionally, the law’s definition of a rogue website is unconstitutionally vague, Tribe writes.

“Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement,” Tribe writes. “Such an approach would create severe practical problems for sites with substantial user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and for blogs that allow users to post videos, photos, and other materials.”

Given the mass outpouring against the bills, the White House announced Saturday that it would not support important provisions of the bills and has issued a public response to petitions protesting SOPA and PIPA.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response,” the note stated. “We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”

The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com.

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