Messing with the Web

Much of the world awoke to a very modern predicament this past week: the Internet had gone on a day-long strike. That is, major websites such as Wikipedia and Reddit, which serve as “hubs” for the digital world by virtue of their massive popularity and daily access, blacked out their services for 24 hours on January 18 to protest two bills that are currently making their way through the American legislature.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) are bills designed to curb what many industries see as an increasingly prevalent culture of theft and piracy on the Internet, particularly media sharing that violates copyright and intellectual privacy rights. The bills, at the outset, seem to be fair in intent: those who create content should receive credit and payment for their work, and should be able to control its use and distribution. The problem, however, is not necessarily the intent—to stop infringement of intellectual property rights—but rather the bills’ arbitrary heavy-handedness.

The bills give the American government broad powers to shut down websites and online businesses for even suspected acts of piracy or complicity in violating copyright laws. Opponents charge that the bills threaten innovation and free speech, and people’s right to access information in a free and fair way. Given the deeply democratic nature of the Internet as a global domain that is, ostensibly, outside any single nation or government’s control, there has been an understandable uprising. The notion of the American government being able to essentially shut down entire web domains over a single link or blog post alarmed and outraged many digital heavyweights.

Those that support the laws decried the blackout as a publicity stunt, while those against them pointed to the ensuing outcry as an example of the strength that exists within the new digital culture. The international response was considerable, given the popularity of the affected sites, and drew mainstream media attention to the cause.

The scope of the proposed laws threatens to undermine the integral social aspect of the Internet as not only a point of information exchange, but a point of human connection. Particularly among young people, social interaction and the traditional methods teenagers use to communicate have shifted into the digital realm; imposing restrictions on these elements would certainly be unpopular and could be dangerous. American social researcher Danah Boyd’s work on how young people interact in the digital universe has been turning heads for pointing out the role the web plays in providing resources and assistance for young people in need. Clamping down on a website for unconfirmed copyright infringement may have wider consequences if that site also serves as a much-needed safe space for a person or people at risk.

From the sharing of media and information to uses in commerce and education, the Web is unprecedented in human history in terms of a structural network for connecting people. Innovation—the ability to work around problems and find solutions—is probably the greatest defining feature of what the Internet has evolved into since its inception several decades ago. It is because of this feature, this ability to integrate different people’s expertise to generate amazing results, that trying to limit or restrict the Internet’s flow will always be unsuccessful. From SOPA and PIPA to the Chinese government’s strong censorship of information internally, efforts that at first seem successful continually face the buffeting force of a global storm, as people around the world come together to push until the entire control system topples over.

The democratization of knowledge has always been a powerful force; the digital age has only led to an increase in the speed and size of this body of open information. While we must ensure that people’s rights and works are treated properly and the credit for those works given when due, we cannot allow a trampling of other fundamental freedoms in response. The free and uninhibited flow of information is the key to any open, democratic society and that must encompass the vast resources contained in the Internet. These proposed laws are, frankly, woefully inadequate in fulfilling that goal; perhaps the authors should have gone online and done a little more research before proposing them.

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