Websites Set to Observe SOPA Blackout Day

A number of prominent websites have organized an anti-SOPA protest tomorrow, and are set to blackout for the day.  A blackout instructions website has been set up to advise Internet website owners on what to make your website go dark on the designated January 18th protest day.

The Los Angeles Times is confirming that Mozilla, Reddit, Word Press, Boing Boing and the English language version of Wikipedia have confirmed their participation in the organized blackout. Twitter has announced that it will not take part in the organized blackout.

In case you have not been following the SOPA controversy and were not up-to-speed on the fact that a blackout day was being organized, the Stop Online Privacy bill was introduced in late October, 2011 by the Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, which would allow the Attorney General of the United States to seek a court order against internet service providers to cause them to make a website disappear from the Internet. CNET
has published an excellent overview of the current controversy. The bill was designed to allow U.S. companies to shut down offshore infringers, and as you might expect is being championed by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, which of course, are highly invested in stopping the loss of profits to online privacy.

While few in the Internet world would disagree that online privacy is bad, the controversy over SOPA is over the concern that large companies are going to be able to censor or blacklist smaller Internet players and simply be able to “erase” their very existence from the Internet. Net has assembled a list of parties who oppose SOPA. The list includes companies, prominent individuals and educators, public interest gorups, industry associations, websites and online services, cybersecurity and engineering groups, and international human rights advocates.

The text and a summary of the bill is posted here.

Where do I come down on this issue?

Like most attorneys who represent clients in the Internet space, I have found myself on both sides of this issue. It is not unusual to have a client come to me with a complaint about a third party infringing my client’s copyright on the Internet, and to find myself in the frustrating position of having to advise my client of the limited options available for dealing with the infringement. It is particularly frustrating when I am talking to a client who has limited resources and cannot afford the investment of resources that is going to be required to really go after the infringer.

In fact, even I have run into situations where my copyrighted works were being infringed on the Internet and I had to make a decision about how to best deal with the infringement.

At the same time, however, I am very concerned by the fact that Congress wants to further legislate in this area. I agree with many of my fellow Internet law experts that we should oppose in general the encroachment of government regulation of the Internet, and this bill appears to be very serious encroachment. Moreover, I am concerned about how a bill like this would be used. It is almost certain that the small content publisher on the Internet would be at a serious disadvantage in defending itself against SOPA-based actions. Large companies with large teams of lawyers would be in a position to effectively censor smaller entities on the Internet, since the accused would not be financially able to defend themselves. It is highly likely that a bill like this which would allow parties to “erase” websites from the Internet would be misused for the economic benefit of one party over another.

Of course, there is another issue. Given the fact that the very nature of Cyberspace is borderless, should a U.S. attorney general really be able to police websites offshore? If so, shouldn’t the equivalent officials for other governments be able to do the same thing? What kind of standard are we setting for the rest of the world to follow? I’m not sure we want certain countries’ political leaders to start erasing American websites from the Internet.

The bottom line is that the implications of this bill go beyond the intent of just getting offshore infringers that cannot be shut down off the Internet. The effects of this bill could be very far-reaching, and take us a step closer to the day when virtually every activity on the Internet is subject to government oversight and regulation–not only by the U.S. but also other governments around the world.

So, as we approach the observation of SOPA Blackout Day, give some thought to what the Internet is going to be like if government officials have the power to “erase” a website from the Internet. Will such blackouts be an advancement of justice or an encroachment on our rights?

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Kristie Prinz