The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here

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