Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Late to the party again.

So this week's post is late -- I was sick with a cold, okay?  And I'm not even going to post about writing today.  But indulge me.

I said I wasn't going to turn this into a political blog, and I meant it.  But as a former journalist, I feel compelled to take note of today's Internet protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 24 hours (which is highly doubtful if you're reading this), you have likely already run into plenty of coverage of the protest against these two bills.  Briefly, the "innocent" aim of these two pieces of legislation is to protect the entertainment industry and other owners of intellectual property by having their work ripped off by Internet pirates.  The supporters say Internet piracy is costing copyright holders tons of revenue.  But it's hard to catch these pirates -- they've largely moved their operations offshore, out of the reach of US police agencies.  So the solution put forth in these bills is to hold Internet service providers accountable for every page they put on the web.  They would also give the US Justice Department the authority to shut down websites for publishing pirated materials to the web.

Sounds good…until you look more closely at what the websites would be required to do.  Companies like Google, YouTube and Wikipedia would be responsible for policing every link on every page in their vast databases.  New companies might have trouble getting start-up funding because of concerns over their ability to police content as they grow.  Not to mention that the unethical could maliciously plant pirated content on someone else's website -- say, that of a competitor.

All of those objections are important, unquestionably.  But I'm most concerned about the censorship aspect.  We would be handing an agency of the federal government broad powers to block websites.  I don't know if you remember, but during the Chinese Olympics, foreign journalists complained that China promised them full Internet access -- and then didn't provide it.  China routinely blocks its citizens' web access.  So do a number of other countries.  With these bills, the United States would be heading down that slippery slope.  It doesn't take a conspiracy nut to see how this could lead to web censorship for other reasons -- including disagreeing with the government.

But that's not all.  To me, this is just another example of the freedoms Americans have lost, or are in danger of losing, since 9/11.  The Washington Post published a great op-ed piece this weekend detailing how we stack up against nations that we've criticized for human rights violations (hint: we're looking more like them every day).  I recommend that you check it out.

Next week, back to the writing biz, I promise.
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