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Last week was a tumultuous one on the internet. You have probably heard people talking about a US bill called SOPA and, unless you’re into the technical or philosophical side of the internet, haven’t understood a word of what they were saying.
Luckily, one of the first things people learn online is to shut out irrelevant news so you could easily ignore all this tech talk, but now people are suddenly talking about Cyber War?? This becomes more difficult to ignore... So what is this all about and why is it important to every internet user?
What is SOPA?
SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is a bill in the US parliament which proposes to give copyright holders the right to block websites and sue website owners which they feel are infringing on their copyright without due process. But what does this mean in ‘normal-people-speak’?
Very crudely said: US corporations would get a free pass to censor the internet for the US at will.
Let’s say you like singing. You record a video in which you cover the latest Justin Bieber song (or Motley Crue, your choice) and put this online on your own blog. Now when Justin’s record label finds your beautiful, heartfelt cover they would be able to block your website from anyone in the US without having to go to court about it (that’s what ‘without due process’ means).
And they will not only be able to block your site, but also your mother’s site who linked to it and anyone else who linked to it AND sue every one of these people. Irony: Justin Bieber started out as a kid on Youtube covering famous hits. He would not be what he is now if this would have happened 10 years ago.
But SOPA doesn't only have an effect on budding nightingales, but also on companies which create jobs and pay taxes. Websites and services like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etcetera would not have existed with a law like this in place and a new generation of world-changing websites will not have a chance if this bill becomes law now.
The internet is rife with illegal copies of music, movies & software and this –allegedly- costs US-based corporations (Warner Bros, Universal, etcetera) millions of dollars per year because people are supposedly buying their products less because they can get it for free.
So, yes, piracy is costing people money and jobs and the idea is that SOPA could stop this because it would make it less attractive / more dangerous to distribute ‘pirated’ content online.
However... the people who download illegal movies are usually the people who know something more about the internet than the average Joe. These people can easily circumvent a ban like this in several ways, so online piracy will hardly be effected by SOPA. But it will hurt people and companies who use the internet for growth, creativity and innovation.
Like the famous internet cartoonist Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal said: "This is like dealing with a lion that has escaped from the zoo... by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower".
Warning: clicking on the image leads to very crude humor
Who cares if American citizens get a censored internet?
Why should the people in the Caribbean, Europe, Asia or wherever care if the US voluntary censors the internet for themselves? It will just create jobs in other countries so it’s a good thing for the rest of the world. Right?
Wrong! When it comes to the internet the world follows the US so if these bills become law, many other countries will also follow suit after a while. In Europe there are already similar initiatives underway and they’re not getting a lot of resistance as of yet...
Besides this, if the company you work for is active on the US market (like many Caribbean-based companies are) this could also have an effect on you directly if you have something on your website which could be seen as copyright-infringing. The bill was also vague enough for just about anything to be deemed copyright-infringing.
What’s with the ‘blackouts’?
In an effort to force US legislators to vote against the SOPA bill, many websites shut down their websites on Wednesday January 18 in the so-called Sopastrike. Some websites were made inaccessible (like myfashionlifestyle.com) and others spread more awareness about the issue (like Google).
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of websites were ‘blacked out’ for 12 hours and within that time period support for the bill went from 80 for vs 31 against to 65 for vs 101 against the bill. And now last Friday it was announced that the SOPA bill was withdrawn “until there is wider agreement on a solution”.
So, is it finished now?
For now, yes. But the bill will come back in some other form and there will remain people who will keep on trying to push something similar through congress. Luckily, there is a lot more awareness now and there are many people who will keep monitoring the situation and they will warn the rest about it so they can respond. Democracy at its finest ;-)
You mentioned a Cyber War?
Yes, also called World War Web, this is not really related to SOPA but does concern online piracy and actions taken against it. After 2 years of investigating and gathering evidence the FBI raided people connected to the website megaupload.com on Thursday January 19 (one day after the Sopastrike). They made arrests and seized assets in the US, New Zealand and Europe in what they call the biggest intellectual property case in US history.
Many online groups were already riled up because of SOPA and a group called ‘Anonymous’ retaliated against the raid by hacking the websites of the Justice Department of the US and the websites of the FBI among several other websites. Anonymous and other online groups have basically declared war against the US and are calling this the beginning of the World War Web. You will probably hear more about this later this year as the story is sure to continue...