If you tried to use Google on Wednesday, you probably noticed the censor bar over the site’s famous logo. You may have gone there after trying to look something up on Wikipedia, which was completely blacked out. Welcome to the world of Internet protests.
Last week, major websites protested two anti-piracy bills currently brewing in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act. Both bills seek to eradicate foreign websites that allow users to illegally watch movies and television shows, but the debate has grown into a battle of the corporations.
On one side, there are media producers like the Motion Picture Association of America and News Corporation and, on the other, website like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook. The former claim SOPA protects their intellectual property, while the latter claim it puts websites in unfair jeopardy of prosecution.
Watching a movie without paying for it has always been illegal, but SOPA takes enforcement to a more intense level. While the targets of the legislation are foreign sites that are normally out of U.S. jurisdiction, U.S. websites are supposed to enforce the law.
Under SOPA, Google and other search engines will have to remove websites with known illegal content from search results. Credit card companies and advertisers will have to vet sites before approving transactions. They will also have to police their own content: if someone uploads their karaoke rendition of “Born This Way” to Youtube, the whole site could get shut down.
It all seems like a bit much. Protecting intellectual property is important, but it’s already covered under current legislation. Putting someone else’s copyrighted material online is illegal, and will be with or without SOPA. In fact, media producers and websites already have a system in place to deal with piracy: if a t.v. show or movie is posted to a site illegally, the owner just needs to ask the site to take it down.
Websites like Google should avoid doing business with shady foreign operations, but to force them to police what is essentially other people’s content (search results that include sites Google does not own, or user-generated videos) or risk being shut down is unfair. The government is in charge of enforcing laws; it should not pawn that responsibility off on private interests. Nor should it punish legal consumers of media by shutting down entire sites because of one search result.
The rights of intellectual property owners must be protected, but there are already laws on the books that do just that. Once you make something illegal, you can’t really make it illegal-er. SOPA is a case in point.