Lawmakers are withdrawing their support for the controversial PIPA and SOPA bills, thanks to the biggest online protest in history that included major websites like Google and Wikipedia. Yesterday thousands of web pages went dark to protest the SOPA and PIPA bills, legislation which seeks to aggressively prosecute sites that illegally distribute media. Critics contest that the bills would amount to too much control over the internet, effectively censoring or even completely shutting down popular domains like youtube.com.
The internet protest is proving even more powerful than the traditional corporate lobbying of groups like the Motion Picture Association of America which represent the interests of media conglomerates. Google's protest resulted in the collection of over seven million signatures to its anti-SOPA petition and Wikipedia encouraged more than eight million users to contact their elected representatives. Not surprisingly, the SOPA bill lost the support of thirteen of its co-sponsors today and at least seven senators have backed away from supporting PIPA.
The internet news program, Democracy Now, has a good segment on this issue today which included Jimmy Wales. The Wikipedia founder explains that the protest does NOT mean that the major websites and search engines are in support of online piracy. Everyone agrees that no one should be allowed to profit off of stolen content. Where the internet giants disagree is in the language of the SOPA bill. According to Jimmy Wales, it is so broad in scope that even Wikipedia could be considered a search engine. So for example, Wikipedia has an entry on The Pirate Bay which in part explains that this file-sharing site has been targeted for participating in illegal activities. Under SOPA, Jimmy Wales believes that Wikipedia would be held liable for hosting a link to Pirate Bay and shut down, even if their motivation is purely to inform readers about the illegal nature of the file-sharing site.
In addition to disturbing behemoth internet companies, PIPA and SOPA awaken concerns about the sleeping giant of unintended consequences. PIPA and SOPA risk placing an unreasonable burden on sites like Google and Yahoo by asking them to censor all the content that may come up in their search results. A search engine is not a content provider. The contents of links distributed by Google and Yahoo are not always under their creative control, and therefore they should not be asked to remove potentially illegal sites from search results. Such a burden would be extremely costly to search engines and no doubt change the very fundamentals of how the internet works.
Right now, Google works pretty well as it is and any threats to the company's productivity and innovation should be approached with extreme caution. We can't expect Google to do anything other than point users to whatever information it thinks is in the best interest of the parties involved: the user, Google's advertising clients, and Google itself (and its bottom line). If a search engine is consistently taking users to misleading results or tricking them into illegal file-sharing, then that would be a cause for alarm and people would start visiting alternative search engines. But Google users usually get exactly what they are looking for, which is why the site is so popular in the first place. SOPA threatens to place an added burden of censorship on sites simply because they have been successful at providing all kinds of information. Instead censorship should be mostly avoided or at least directed towards just those sites exclusively engaged in piracy.
Instead of relying on private, profit-driven companies to be filters for the government, the role of censorship is best left to law enforcement, and even still, should be for only those sites in clear violation of established laws. Or better yet, let's have a system that encourages individual web sites to observe copyright laws all by themselves. By and large, content providers should police themselves like Wikipedia does, because it is a responsible business practice and because legal penalites for copyright infringement already exist.
If the task of censoring illegal information becomes so broad as to include search engines, then the costs of censorship will no doubt be passed on to users. As a result, SOPA could potentially lead to the presumption of guilt being cast on to everyone on the internet. Look at what's happened with TSA in airports because of unintended consequences of laws designed to stop the crimes of a small minority of bad actors. Now each private airline carrier has to give up the responsibility of providing passenger security to an entity outside their control. Instead of private security firms who are subject to the free market, a huge, immovable government bureaucracy subject to inefficiency and abuse reigns supreme.
One has to consider the unintended consequences of what happens when well meaning, but poorly considered bills become law. Just like in airports where private individuals participating in their everyday business have to go to extraordinary lengths to prove they are not criminals, the same situation could soon slow our travels on the information superhighway. Millions of individual content creators, online media consumers with only legal intentions, and even internet giants do not want any government slowing down the progress of information. If this week's protest are any indication, SOPA and PIPA won't make it out of Congress, and instead will go down as examples of how internet-fueled democracy is even more powerful than corporate lobbyists.