The Inside Agenda Blog

Guest Post: On SOPA, Social Media, and "Breaking" the Internet

Friday January 27, 2012

Michael Dick is a Doctoral Student in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he holds a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. His research focuses on Information and Communication Technology history and policy. His most recent publication is entitled "Twenty Years of Unnecessary Forward Slashes: Critiquing Narratives of the Development of the Web," which is part of an edited volume on new media history from Peter Lang Press (2011). For further information, please visit www.michaeldick.net and follow @michaelhdick on Twitter.

On January 25, 2012, thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square to mark the first anniversary of the uprising that eventually toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime, and catalyzed what’s come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” The tributes, and indeed the ongoing protests, were not just observed on the streets of Cairo, though. Thousands more took to social media to continue reflecting, organizing, and dissenting. Familiar Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and Twitter hashtags – like #Tahrir, one of the most vital outlets during the 18-day 2011 revolt – remain a hotbed of political activity, and continue to transform the physical “public square” into a virtual one that transcends both space and time to unite global citizens. Over the past few years, from Tehran to Tunis, online media and its user-generated, “crowdsourced” content have become as important in enacting change as the pamphlet, the megaphone, and pirate radio.

Yet just a week before the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, on January 18, 2012, popular websites featuring user-generated content, Reddit and Wikipedia most notably, went dark in protest against two hotly-contested American bills designed to reform intellectual property laws: one, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (“SOPA”), which was introduced in the House of Representatives at the end of October, 2011; and two, the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act” (also known as the “PROTECT IP Act” or simply “PIPA”), which was introduced in the Senate in May 2011, and is itself a reincarnation of the failed “Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” (“COICA”) of 2010. The backlash against these proposals has also been swift across social media platforms, with users taking to outlets like Twitter, repeatedly claiming that SOPA “broke the Internet.”

The rhetoric aside, what do these users really mean and what’s really at stake in this debate? On one level, bills like SOPA and PIPA are continued attempts by lawmakers – lobbied heavily by the traditional (or “legacy”) media industries – to stop online piracy and ensure content creators are fairly compensated for their labour. In brief, these proposed bills are to “civilize” the “Wild West” of the Web, where piracy is rampant and legacy media suffers as a result. Opponents of SOPA and PIPA respond to this now-familiar argument with claims that the freedom to share and remix intellectual property for non-commercial purposes is a vital aspect of online culture. Beyond such notions of “fair use,” independent producers also claim that rigorous attempts to fight piracy stifles their creativity, while still others posit that copyright itself is an antiquated notion in the first place, and that open-source, “copyleft” alternatives are preferable. In all of these cases, the tenor of the discussion is largely focused on content, and whether or not copying and sharing copyrighted material constitutes infringement in particular instances. This is readily observed through landmark U.S. legislation like the “Audio Home Recording Act” (“AHRA”) of 1992, and the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” (“DMCA”) of 1998.

But there’s a disturbing trend evident in all this legislation, and it relates to how the legal system regards the various technologies used to make and distribute copies in the first place. With each passing year, lawmakers, influenced by legacy media industries, appear increasingly interested in controlling technological infrastructure to prevent possible violations of copyright law through proactive, and highly restrictive, measures. With the AHRA, for example, Congress allowed private, non-commercial analog and digital copying in some circumstances, but it also demanded adherence to the early anti-piracy mechanisms present in the digital audio recording systems of the time. This was taken a step further in the DMCA, which criminalized the circumvention of now-evolved Digital Rights Management (“DRM”) systems, even when done outside the traditional scope of copyright infringement (e.g. for research and educational purposes).

SOPA and PIPA take this concern to another level altogether by effectively viewing the entire Web itself as the technology implicated in alleged acts of copyright infringement, and the proposed remedies are severe. With PIPA, for example, websites accused of violating American copyright law could be removed from the Domain Name System altogether. This would make them locatable only to users who know the site’s IP Address, since traditional domain names could no longer be resolved by Web browsers and search engines under threat of prosecution. Beyond the obvious implications this would have on the cultural sovereignty of other nations (all of the legislation mentioned up to this point is designed to protect American intellectual property on a global scale), this is a very manifest way in which SOPA and PIPA could, quite literally, “break” the Internet.

In a recent “TED Talk” on this subject, Clay Shirky, a noted commentator on social media, accurately highlights another problematic element of SOPA and PIPA, namely the shifting burden of proof in claims of copyright infringement. Under existing law, particularly the “safe harbor” provisions of the DMCA, the onus remains on the copyright holder to police their own content and request removal from the offending website (which is itself potentially protected from liability so long as it makes a “good faith” effort to respond to such “takedown notices”). Although this point remains controversial, the situation under SOPA and PIPA is thought to differ significantly: here, the website could lose its “safe harbor” protections and must hypothetically prove it did not facilitate copyright infringement in the first place – in Shirky’s words, a website operator would now be “guilty until proven innocent.”

Suffice to say, the impact of this on all websites, not just social media platforms, is far-reaching and could create a “chilling effect” that would hinder innovation by requiring websites to invest more resources in approving content before making it available to users, an especially devastating proposition for smaller start-ups. In her recent op-ed in The New York Times, Rebecca MacKinnon, of the New America Foundation, suggests this could also require social networks like Twitter to censor user-generated content in a manner similar to its Chinese counterpart, Weibo, in order to comply with these proposed U.S. laws. (Both Shirky and MacKinnon are guests on tonight’s program.)

As a result, the backlash against SOPA and PIPA is not just rooted in concerns over the piratic exploitation of intellectual property. Legislation along these lines has even broader consequences, and may thus “break the Internet” by diminishing both the prevalence and prominence of user-generated content online. The culture of resistance that has come to characterize social media as a whole would also be negatively affected, because, to put it bluntly, clearing copyright is not the primary concern of those trying to enact a revolution. On a positive note, votes on both SOPA and PIPA have since been postponed (no doubt due in part to the protests of January 18); however, the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement” (“ACTA”) – a plurilateral agreement signed on October 1, 2011, by the U.S., 22 of the EU’s member states, and seven other countries (Canada among them) – is facing similar criticism at present.

The debate on this topic must continue, and not just because of particular bills that ultimately may or may not succeed. Although various platforms like Facebook continue to warrant criticism because they face their own challenges from users and policymakers (especially regarding issues like user privacy and surveillance), the popularity of such social media and its user-generated content embodies the notion of the public sphere in a way that’s markedly different, and arguably more significant, than other media systems of both past and present. Therefore, working to protect a culture of free expression across social media and its user-generated content is vital. Attempts to “civilize” the “Wild, Wild Web” may please American corporations, but the unintended consequences for others who rely on the underlying technologies for a multitude of purposes are deeply troubling. At the very least, for a nation that celebrated the outcome of the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. and its lawmakers must be mindful that the tools now so significantly associated with the fabric of the Internet are directly implicated in their present attempts to combat online piracy.