Don't mess with the Internet. That was the message from millions of Americans to Congress Jan. 18, a message so overwhelmingly intense that it crashed some of the servers on Capitol Hill. You probably hadn't heard of SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) or PIPA (the Protect IP Act) until last week, but by last Wednesday they were global news as many of the world's most popular websites either went dark or put up information protesting the bills, which were set to be heard in Congress.
It's neither hyperbole nor melodrama to say either bill would put an end to Americans' right to use the Internet as they please — and put the United States on that shameful list of countries that censor the 'Net. Sally Kohn of Fox News wrote, "Businesses and governments could get unopposed court orders to cut off ... sites entirely, blocking even their perfectly legal and legitimate content from public view." A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union said, "The bill is severely flawed and will result in the takedown of large amounts of non-infringing content from the Internet in contravention of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." When you've got both Fox News and the ACLU against a pair of bills, you can pretty much guarantee they're unpopular with the public across the board.
Here was the problem with SOPA and PIPA as originally drafted: Say someone uploads a Harry Potter movie to Blogspot.uk and invites others to download it for free. Under SOPA and PIPA, the U.S. Attorney General's office would not only have the right to shut down the offending blog — but the government could block all of Blogspot.uk for hosting the rogue file, essentially locking out tens of thousands of creators and site visitors. It could also shut down any site that linked to Blogspot.uk, however innocently.
A second problem: The attorney general also would have the right to order Google and other search engines to remove any link in their search results to any offending sites — essentially "disappearing" those sites. Typing in the address of the website by hand also would fail — as long as you were within American borders.
In other words, Internet users in Canada and Mexico would have free access to the Web, but those within American borders would be able to see only what the government approved, or didn't disapprove, just like Internet users in China and North Korea. The political implications are obvious — and ominous.
It was disappointing to see so many Louisiana legislators not only supporting the bills, but also co-sponsoring them. PIPA, the Senate bill, was cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, while SOPA, the House bill, was cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican. By the middle of last week, both Vitter and Scalise had announced they were no longer supporting the respective bills. They joined more than a dozen other GOP lawmakers who had a sudden change of heart. Sadly, many Democrats dug in their heels on this one. As of press time, Landrieu still hasn't separated herself from PIPA, and a press aide for Rep. Cedric Richmond never got back to us with Richmond's position on the issue.
"This bill is important to Louisiana's economy, especially our growing movie industry and our well-established music industry," Landrieu wrote in a statement. "Louisiana has a long history of local, national and world-renowned artists whose livelihood depends on the sale of their original works." Putting aside the constitutionality of the issue — what about the livelihoods of Louisiana's tech industry and the rights of its citizens?
Moreover, SOPA and PIPA likely would do nothing to stop, or even interrupt, Internet piracy. When it comes to the Internet and other forms of technology, computer experts and hackers will always far outpace the U.S. Congress. So will your average teenager. If a halfway-savvy computer user wants to download a bootleg copy of the latest Twilight movie or Lady Gaga album, it's likely to happen regardless of any law the government might pass.
We sympathize with those who have their work stolen. Occasionally Gambit content has been pirated. It's not pleasant. When that happens, we pursue the thieves directly under existing copyright laws; we don't ask the U.S. government to block the entire country from visiting their websites. We hope that if similar bills come before Congress again, Louisiana lawmakers will strive to protect the works of writers and artists, as well as the rights of their constituents to access non-infringing content online.