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Debate over online piracy could cause Internet disruptions

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Submitted by Tim Roper on Thursday, January 19, 2012

A proposed bill in the US House of Representatives and Senate is stirring up a fiery debate between copyright holders and technology companies.  The bill is referred to as the “Stop Online Piracy Act.”.

As of mid-day Monday, January 16th, US Representative Eric Cantor (R – Virginia) withdrew support for H.R. 3261 (aka, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” or “SOPA”), thereby averting a potential “go-dark” protest by many major websites such as Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Facebook, among others.  It is still unknown whether some of these major websites will move forward with a blackout on Wednesday.  You can read more about the controversial SOPA bill here.

The bill would have authorized the US Department of Justice to seek court orders against websites outside of US jurisdiction accused of infringing on copyrights, or of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. It would also give the US Attorney General the power to force US-based Internet service providers (ISPs), payment processors, and ad networks to cease doing business with such sites accused of copyright infringement (or the enabling thereof). The Attorney General could also stop search engines from displaying links to such sites.

The bill would also criminalize the unauthorized streaming of copyrighted materials, carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Under current US law, copyright infringement is a civil matter.

Proponents of the bill cite rampant digital piracy on the Internet that severely dilutes a copyright holder’s ability to capitalize on that holding, leading to lost revenues, lost jobs, and the drying up of venture capital, among other reasons.

Critics of the legislation oppose the bill for various reasons, including the following:

• The language of the bill is, according to critics, overly broad. Mike Masnick of Techdirt wrote in a lengthy criticism of SOPA that “one could argue the entire Internet enables or facilitates infringement.”
• Requirements for ISPs to block domain names of sites accused of infringing would wreak havoc on the technological underpinnings that allow the Internet to function.
• It weakens so-called “safe-harbor” protections for content hosts such as YouTube and Google Video that are acting in good faith to prevent users from infringing on the rights of copyright holders.
• Such content hosts, fearing exposure to litigation, would tend to err on the side of caution when considering copyright claims, thereby producing a “chilling effect” on the free speech of Internet users. Many critics claim this is tantamount to censorship.
•  The bill, as written, fails to account for the so-called “Fair Use” exemption under existing copyright law.
• Entire websites could be blocked for the actions of a single infringer. For example, Facebook could be knocked offline because an individual uploaded a single copyrighted photo.

It appears that this bill was killed Monday, but  the ongoing debate could affect the Internet and innovation.  CMIT Solutions is watching this bill and keeping up with how these regulations could affect Internet users.

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