Today, while the SOPA/PIPA debate is very much in the forefront of people’s thoughts, we’re happy to welcome this guest post on SOPA. By way of introduction, you might also check out the “Black Wednesday” post from this morning on the internal Hack Library School debate to weigh in on this issue with links to other resources.
We are pleased to offer Alex’s well-researched and thoughtful article on the merits and problems with SOPA and hope that the discussion and information sharing continues here on Hack Library School.
SOPA and PIPA have been floating around the internet over the last few weeks. These two bills (SOPA for the House of Representatives [HoR] and PIPA for the Senate) are meant to combat online piracy and copyright infringement. These are laudable goals and should be applauded by any aspiring information professional. So what’s all the hubbub about? The issue that many opponents are raising is that, in their current forms, SOPA and PIPA effectively threaten to censor the internet.
Section A subsection 1 states that “a foreign infringing site is (1) the Internet site or portion thereof is a U.S.-directed site and is used by users in the United States.”
Essentially, any website that can be accessed within the United States falls under the purview of SOPA and PIPA. Subsection (b) states that the Attorney General may take action against a registrant of the domain name used by the offending website or the owner/operator of said site. At this point SOPA seems fairly benign. That isn’t to say that there are not warning signs. It’s claimed purview over all websites viewed by users within the United States is worryingly broad.
Where SOPA starts getting real hairy is article 5. Article states that once the Attorney General has filed a complaint the court “may issue a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, or an injunction . . . against a registrant of a domain name used by the foreign infringing site or an owner or operator of the foreign infringing site.” Under this article, the court can”temporarily” shut down an “offending website.” Since this is a preliminary step there is no requirement for burden of proof or any other requirements for proof beyond suspicious interaction with currently copyrighted material.
Section C Subsection A-D has provoked the most resistance from major opponents of the bill. Essentially these clauses compel service providers, internet search engines (i.e Google), payment network providers (Paypal), and internet advertising services to collaborate with any requests made under SOPA/PIPA. Whether or not there is irrefutable proof behind the request doesn’t matter. At least that’s what SOPA says.
Section D doesn’t establish a real platform from which defendants can mount a successful defense. By making a particular website responsible for all user activity, at all times, SOPA undercuts any real defense by websites who’s users may violate copyright laws. Additionally, the only way for the “temporary” restraining order to be lifted is if the court finds that the website in question did not violate copyright laws. This means some websites could be out of business for a considerable duration as court cases are not usually expedient, nor is the amount of data contained by the average website insubstantial.
So what lesson does this carry for current and future LIS students?
The first lesson is that even the most ideologically sound proposals can fall apart if the language construction is poor. SOPA is an excellent example of this fact. Nobody will argue that online piracy is a problem. And yet the language of the bill suggests that this bills purview extends far beyond online piracy and aims to control the flow of information on the internet. While this may not be the case, the language is vague enough so that it could be construed in this manner.
Second: Internet legislation should be crafted in concert with internet companies. A quick preview of the groups backing SOPA does not yield any internet centric organizations. Rather organizations like the MPAA, RIAA, and even Actors Equity Union look like sore losers. While this may not be the case, the active opposition of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Reddit, and many other internet-centric organizations indicates that all may not be well with the proposed legislation. In addition, the stacked hearings held by the HoR on SOPA only reinforces the notion that there are sinister forces at work.
Third: Information management is tricky business. As a content manager, I am constantly made aware of the fact that the materials I am handling are under copyright. And yet in the digital space it’s so easy for users to either ignore or remain ignorant of copyright laws and regulations. Of course this begs that question as to whether or not copyright laws are a good fit for the internet, but that’s for a different discussion. Just because you’ve got a great database, solid information gathering tools, and a rocking taxonomy, and maybe even ontology does not mean you can be complacent. If anything, this whole hoopla over SOPA proves that any institution or individual that not only accesses the internet, but also uploads, creates, edits, or in any way touches content must remain vigilant.
Fourth: There are no black and white situations. SOPA seems like a poor idea, but that isn’t true. SOPA is a poorly EXECUTED, but great idea. Therefore the lesson that should be absorbed is not to judge an idea by its presentation. Rather we should, as information professionals, read between the lines. If the presentation is bad, why? How can it be improved, etc. Rather than advocating wholesale opposition to proposed legislation like SOPA we should be thinking about how can we improve it? Certainly it’s a laudable goal, it just needs a LOT of improvement.
Alex Berman was born in rural Vermont. At 18, he decided there was more to life than living in a town with a 3:1 cow to people ratio. He attended Boston University receiving a B.A US History. After that, he decided that the dual MA/M.LIS at Simmons College represented an unprecedented opportunity for him. Eventually, he discovered that not only did he gravitate towards the digital aspect of information sciences, but that he enjoyed any excuse to be a nerd. In May 2011, he completed his M.LIS, and 300 resumes later, landed a job as the Content Manager/ E-Content Analyst at Kaplan Publishing in New York City. Currently he writes on his blog: librarianmaybe.wordpress.com, tweets at @archivingnoob64, runs 2 marathons per year, enjoys bacon, and longs walks in Central Park with his fiance, Maggie and their French Bulldog, Moxie.