Friday, January 20, 2012

The Ethics of SOPA and PIPA

Watching the massive internet protest this past Wednesday on January 18th against the SOPA and PIPA bills being debated in Congress was an  interesting  experience, especially as a librarian who works in an ethics center.  I have discussed issues of intellectual property with students and faculty here at IIT enough to appreciate what an important commodity it is for the U.S. economy.   If some of the numbers being quoted by the Motion Picture Association of America are correct, than piracy costs the U.S. something like $58 billion annually. The entertainment industry may have had a major hand in writing this bill, but underlying intent make sense. We do need to find some effective means of protecting the legitimate intellectual property of U.S. companies and citizens. 

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the  Protect IP Act (PIPA) were proposed as a way to deal with foreign "rogue" websites who are offering pirated movies and music and counterfeit goods to U.S. consumers. The bills give the federal government expanded tools for pursuing websites that infringe on copyright, including getting ISPs to block access to suspect websites, restrict U.S. companies from selling adds to pirate sites, stop online companies from processing payments for illegal sales and keeping search engines from listing web sites suspected of piracy.

However, when you begin to read the vague wording of these these two bills, you can begin to see what the protest was about. Its not about taking away our free (and illegal) access to movies and music, but rather the potential impact these bills' may have on the the Internet as we know it. 

I would argue that any legislation passed needs to also protect the free speech and privacy of internet users. SOPA and PIPA, by allowing the Department of Justice to file cases in court that would lead to blocking access and cutting revenue sources for infringing web sites, puts U.S. in the same groups as the 13 other countries who require the government blocking of web sites.  The American Library Association has also raised some questions about how the bill might affect users' privacy in a message to their members, stating that  SOPA requirement that  internet companies to monitor internet traffic.."raises the significant likelihood of a 'chilling effect' on using the internet for commerce, communication, and participation in a democratic society."

Questions of what kind of jurisdiction the United States should have on the Internet also need to be addressed. Should we have the right to impose U.S. copyright law across the world? SOPA and PIPA have the potential to reach well beyond the borders of the United States, and any website with a domain name registered in the United States would be treated as if it were a U.S. page. 

The good news is that that Wednesday's protest seems to have had an effect and a new bill, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) is proposed as a potential alternative to SOPA and PIPA This bill would would allow copyright holders to complain to the U.S. International Trade Commission. This court has the authority to ban the import and sale of infringing material to U.S. consumers, though it would not have the authority to order ISPs to block accesses to infringing web sites. Perhaps a bill such as this will prove to be a better solution.

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