A misguided attempt to fight piracy

Rui Shi

For the past several months, a viral campaign to prevent the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), its counterpart in the U.S. Senate, took the Internet by storm. Major web players such as Google, Wikipedia and Reddit banded together for an unprecedented Internet blackout on Wednesday. This act of defiance sent a clear message to Congress: The Internet is not to be regulated.

Introduced in late October, SOPA and PIPA intend to curb copyright infringement by blocking websites, primarily foreign in origin, accused of violating U.S. copyrights. For example, if 20th Century Fox finds its movie “Avatar” streaming on a Chinese website, it could demand that Google remove the site from its search results, that advertising services stop financing the site, that Paypal stop accepting payments and that the U.S. government prevent people from going to the site entirely.

While benign in nature, the passing of SOPA and PIPA would have dire ramifications, as the bills’ vague language will most likely lead to abuse by copyright holders. In order for a website to be blacklisted, the site only has to be accused of infringement. Companies can take action against supposed perpetrators without a single court appearance or judicial sign-off, which could lead to their using this provision to hurt foreign rivals. The only thing that is required is a letter claiming “good faith belief” that a website is in violation.

Another aspect of the bills is the “anti-circumvention” clause, which would punish people for finding ways to get around SOPA and PIPA. For example, if you post a link to a copyrighted movie on your friend’s Facebook wall, Facebook would then be legally bound to remove that link. Enforcing this type of clause would create logistical nightmares for large companies. Google and Facebook would be virtually unable to police themselves because of the large amount of traffic they receive. This would also create an extra burden for smaller companies, as they may not have the resources to abide by the bills’ requirements.

If the bills pass, they could have several negative consequences on students. A copyright infringement on a single page of an educational website could result in the entire site’s being shut down.

Collaborative online resources built by the international community will most likely be targeted by SOPA and PIPA. These “open educational resources” are built upon the collection of information from thousands of universities and millions of students. Sharing these materials could be considered infringement, and would also be in danger if the bills are passed.

In the end, SOPA and PIPA are attempts to protect the interest of the bills’ supporters, most notably the Motion Pictures Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.

The bills are both unnecessary and unenforceable. Current copyright laws, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, already call for infringing materials to be taken down. We’ve all come across enough “This video has been removed” messages on YouTube to show that it works fine.

Moreover, because the bills are aimed at foreign websites, they will accomplish next to nothing in terms of blocking piracy. Overseas websites such as the Pirate Bay have advertising partners that are not U.S.-based and therefore cannot be shut out by the U.S. government. Additionally, people from outside the United States will still be able to readily access copyrighted content because violators are only blocked in the United States.

The goal of exterminating piracy is a noble one and should be applauded. However, piracy is better stopped with technological innovation rather than with poorly written bills. Congress has seen stiff opposition from the White House and Silicon Valley and must reconsider its course of action.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.