Never forget: SOPA & PIPA
Author’s Note: Exactly one year ago today, the internet was threatened by a terrible force. The United States government was threatening to shut down numerous websites through two acts known as SOPA and PIPA, giving them, as well as private companies and ISP holders, unlimited power over our personal, digital lives. One year has since passed, and not much has progressed in terms of passing either of these bills, but that doesn’t me we can forget about them. Below is a research report I did for my English class earlier this year, highlighting the problems of piracy and how the government had and still has no right to stop them in the way they tried. Enjoy.
Online piracy. It is a topic that seems to have ballooned as of late. From the movie industry to the music industry to the gaming industry, piracy is a major problem in the world of entertainment. Yet, the government has done little to nothing to stop piracy from spreading. That is, until now. Following the recent string of file-sharing website closures by the federal government – most significantly the Megaupload case – and the attempts by Congress to pass anti-piracy laws like SOPA and PIPA, many question the validity and practicality of the government’s actions to further the crackdowns on online piracy. Is it acceptable for the government to take control of our personal online lives? Though piracy itself may be a terrible thing, government policies that attempt to stop it can be far worse.
The first order of business is to understand why piracy is wrong and why the government is trying to stop it. In the past, many have argued that piracy actually benefits businesses. One of the various examples of this argument concerns the movie “The Man from Earth,” a small-budget independent film that had little exposure upon initial release in 2007. According to producer Eric Wilkinson, thanks to a popular blog that supplies illegal download links to independent films, “The Man from Earth” rose from number 11235 on box-office tracking site IMDB to number 5 in popularity. Though this type of exposure may seem to be beneficial to the movie industry, such an incident is rare and can only happen to small independent movie producers like Wilkinson. Larger film producers that already have the needed initial exposure only suffer from such piracy.
It is easy to see why large entertainment companies are losing money from piracy. No profit is made from pirated products, preventing businesses and I.P. owners from receiving possible revenue. Though it may seem that larger businesses have enough money to cover the cost of piracy, in the current economic slump, many companies are struggling to break even. Software giant Ubisoft openly claims that some games they publish have a piracy rate of almost 90 percent. Likewise, SEGA says piracy rates for some of their software top 80 percent. The Business Software Alliance (BSA) reports that 42 percent of all computer software products are pirated. Surprisingly, the United States is at the lower end of the piracy spectrum, with piracy rates of less than 20 percent; China, on the other hand, has a piracy rate of over 77 percent. BSA also reports the total cost of damages due to piracy to be $53.4 billion worldwide in 2011, and piracy rates continue to rise today.
If these statistics are not cause enough for concern, perhaps the following are. First, “exposure” does not always lead to “sales.” Independent film producer Rahl Reese, who directed the movie “Zombieland” in 2009, was struggling to raise the funding for its planned sequel as his film became the most-pirated movie of 2009, saying that it was “beyond depressing” and would “greatly [affect] the likelihood of a Zombieland 2.” Second, piracy is stealing, and stealing is objectively wrong. There have been many arguments about the morality of piracy, many claiming that piracy is merely “copying” and not really “stealing.” “Imagine your car gets stolen, but it is still there in the morning,” say proponents of piracy. This analogy does not accurately represent the situation at hand. The “car is stolen but still there” statement is an example of commensalism; the “thief” benefits while the “victim” is unaffected. In reality, piracy is and example of parasitism; the “thief” benefits, but the “victim” (in this case, the company who made the pirated product) is robbed of potential return. Piracy is robbery, no matter how you spin it.
Now that we have acknowledged that piracy is “bad,” it is time to figure out what the government is trying to do about it. To better understand the current situation with piracy, it is best to look at the many attempts of other countries to fix the piracy problem. In 2011, New Zealand passed the Copyright Amendment Act that allows the government to suspend the internet accounts of repeated offenders of internet piracy. In Britain, the High Court is attempting to pass a legislation that would punish ISP’s and search engines for allowing customers access to websites linked to piracy. Both of these legislations suffer from the same problem: they are practically unenforceable. There is no sensible way for the government to go about searching for “illegal” websites to shut down; there is just not enough manpower to do so. Furthermore, it is too difficult for the government to keep track of every single I.P. to ensure that no one is doing anything illegal. It is for these reasons that the United States decided to take a different approach: bring piracy control out of the government and into the local level. And that is what SOPA and PIPA were aimed to accomplish.
What exactly are SOPA and PIPA? At a glance, both bills seem to be the same. However, there are distinct differences between the two. SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is seeking passage in the House of Representatives and contains a clause that directly states how search engines should take action. PIPA, or the PROTECT I.P. Act (PROTECT standing for “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft”) is seeking passage in the Senate instead of the House and does not contain the clause concerning search engines. However, PIPA makes no mention of how to deal with false accusers, while SOPA does.
In practice, both acts are very similar in that they both aim to give intellectual property owners the ability to shut down all access to a particular website that they believe is infringing copyright. In other words, if a company feels that a certain website is allowing the illegal distribution of their product, the company can add the website to a “blacklist” (the bills do not specifically use the term “blacklist,” but in practice, that is what the bill entails) that prevents the website from receiving advertisements via ad companies like AdSense and finance from online payment companies like PayPal. The “blacklist” would also prevent the website from popping up on search engines, effectively wiping the website off the face of the earth. Though the bills are aimed at stopping foreign websites from stealing intellectual property within the United States, they pose a serious threat to the American people as well.
The issue with SOPA and PIPA that most people point out is that the bills infringe upon the privacy of the people. Under the new law, the government and intellectual property owners are allowed access to anyone’s social networking profile, email, or instant message. This is a huge concern because a possible breach on the government – such as the WikiLeaks incident in 2011 – can lead to the transfer of anyone’s personal information to the hands of a stranger. But the problem with SOPA and PIPA is not merely just an issue of privacy – indeed, the government checking your social networks to keep you in check is cause for some concern – but an issue of disturbing the social norm.
SOPA and PIPA utilize an “honor system” in which offenders are guilty until proven innocent. This means that accusations can have no basis whatsoever and still lead to the actions the bills entail, including the possible closure of the site. This gives content providers too much power, the power to destroy one’s very own digital life. Let us say you post a link on Facebook to a file-sharing website that has a history of providing links to illegal products. Now, the link that you posted may not have been connected to an illegal download, but because the website you linked to provides access to piracy may cause the post to be removed and your account to be closed. What if the accuser feels that you may have shared that link via email? Your email account linked to you Facebook may be closed down. What if that email is connected to hundreds of sites around the internet? What if that email was the primary tool of communication with your co-workers? What if that email was the only way you can access your photo albums online? The removal of that email address can mean the end of your digital life, all because of an accusation that you may not even have been responsible of.
So what can we do about it? Unfortunately, there is little we can do other than to wait and see. As of February 2012, after numerous amendments to both bills, SOPA and PIPA were tabled and put on hold. But that did not stop the FBI from seizing and closing down popular file-sharing website Megupload in the aforementioned Megaupload case. The shut-down, which took place mere hours from a major online protest by Anonymous against SOPA and PIPA, exemplifies the repercussions that may occur if the government takes control of the internet. Megaupload, being a file-sharing website, is home to millions of files, all of which are stored on Megaupload’s servers. Most of these files are not related to online piracy (many of them were work and personal information), but because of the amount of piracy that took place at Megaupload, the entire website was shut down, and all of its information and storage, illegal or not, was pushed into internet limbo. Like it or not, piracy rates are rising, and so is government action against piracy. There must be another way to stop piracy, one that does not involve the government taking too much control. But until a solution is found, we continue to live in a world threatened by the government’s tyranny over our internet lives.
Never forget: SOPA & PIPA.