November 28, 2011

Web Censorship Stifles Creativity

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Raise your hand if, you have, at one point or another, posted a link to a copyrighted material on the Internet. Congratulations. Under the new proposed bill H.R. 3261, or the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), you could go to jail for up to five years. That’s right, you could go to jail for putting up a link to your favorite song on Facebook. I don’t know how many of you have heard of this somewhat new bill (I first heard of it last Wednesday), but if passed, it would very likely change the Internet as we know it, and inevitably for the worse.

Here’s what the bill tries to do:

1) Block access to domain names that infringe on copyright law. Corporations would be able to sue websites, search engines, or social media sites that have links to infringing websites.

2) Corporations and the government could cut off funds to infringing websites.

Now, to an extent it sounds reasonable to take down websites whose purpose it is to leak copyrighted material onto the Internet for free. But what the writers and supporters of this bill may not realize is due its wording, it will inevitably take down hundreds to thousands of sites that spur the innovation, creativity and transmission of ideas across the globe. How will it do this? Well, any website that has a link to copyrighted material becomes liable for that link. That means that if a corporation thinks a site isn’t filtering for copyrighted material sufficiently, they can either sue or simply block the site without ever taking any legal action. And even if the website doesn’t go bankrupt, it will likely shut down simply because of the difficulty of filtering every single piece of content. Sadly, this will also apply to social media sites, including both Facebook and Twitter, which have helped to fuel social movements, including those that took place in the Middle East this year.

I’m sure that legislators feel they are doing a good thing: helping to stop copyright infringement. The problem is that they are not appreciating the function of many websites, which is to mix original, amazingly creative content with comments, mash-ups and performances of other original copyrighted works. Take Tumblr, for example. This website features thousands of artists who post links to their own work, but more often than not, the website contains communities that have sprung up around beloved television shows, movies and novels. And YouTube, with an abundance of smart, witty and funny video-bloggers, is home to music mash-ups, clips from movies and homemade music videos. Millions of artists, musicians, reviewers and entertainers across the globe interact and talk to one another by talking about the things they love, which often include copyrighted materials. And according to the 1st Amendment right to free speech, there should not be anything wrong with this interaction. But according to SOPA, these interactions will be illegal, and the sites that host them will be taken down.

Part of the reason I love the Internet is because it has connected me to so many creative and fantastic pieces of art, literature and ingenuity that I would never have discovered otherwise. To take down these sites would be to completely destroy the link to a world that allows people from around the globe to interact with and engage each other. Maybe Congress just doesn’t realize the consequences, but to pass this bill would mean that these millions of artists and innovators will essentially be put out of business because Hollywood wants to sell more movies.

So that is what this bill will do.  Congress has tried  and failed to legislate moral action before. Nearly a century ago, the 66th Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Fourteen years later, the Amendment was repealed, having failed miserably to prevent people from drinking. The legislating of morals often fails, for those who truly wish to get around the system will always find a way to do so, and, especially in this case, the people who will be punished are those whose creativity, ingenuity and dialogue would have helped shape the future. If Congress passes this bill, the world will lose out on all of the things those creative people have to say, and that’s not a world I really want to live in.

Original Author: Fiona Modrak