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Free Internet: The Last Stand of Freedom and Civilization

January 18, 2012
Wikipedia's shrugging...

Wikipedia's shrugging...

The Internet is the next main target of government regulation and statism. In the United States, which remains the nucleus of innovation and technology, the Marxist Obama administration seeks to regulate the World Wide Web, which is the best symbol of freedom, human achievement, and civilization in the world today.

Two statist, anti-freedom, anti-innovation bills in the United States Congress– the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate– have been proposed by most Democrats and a number statist Republicans-by-name to regulate the Internet. Like all statist, fascist regulations and laws in the past, both SOPA and PIPA, we’re told, seek to serve the common good or the greater good. SOPA, if enacted into law, would increase the power of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods.

Here’s a good explanation of this legislative proposal:

Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites. They cite examples such as Google’s $500 million settlement with the Department of Justice for its role in a scheme to target U.S. consumers with ads to illegally import prescription drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

Opponents say that it violates the First Amendment, is Internet censorship, will cripple the Internet, and will threaten whistle-blowing and other free speech actions. Opponents have initiated a number of protest actions, including petition drives, boycotts of companies that support the legislation, and planned service blackouts by Wikipedia and major Internet companies scheduled to coincide with the next Congressional hearing on the matter.

PIPA, on the other hand,  seeks to provide the US government and copyright holders additional measures to prevent access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the United States.

Without a doubt, these two statist legislative proposals are a clear tool of government regulation in order to control and regulate the Internet and arbitrarily limit or even prohibit certain online activities, sites, contents, etc., which its proponents deemed unacceptable and against their own definition of ‘public good’, ‘public safety or security’, or the ‘greater good’.

As of this writing Wikipedia announced its decision to ‘Go Galt’ (translation: to strike or to shrug) by “blacking out” its English website “globally” today in protest of the twin evils that seek to kill the free Internet as we know it.

A few hours ago today, Wikipedia published its message of protest entitled “English Wikipedia anti-SOPA blackout”.

oday, the Wikipedia community announced its decision to black out the English-language Wikipedia for 24 hours, worldwide, beginning at 05:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 18 (you can read the statement from the Wikimedia Foundation here). The blackout is a protest against proposed legislation in the United States — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)in the U.S. Senate — that, if passed, would seriously damage the free and open Internet, including Wikipedia.

This will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it’s a decision that wasn’t lightly made. Here’s how it’s been described by the three Wikipedia administrators who formally facilitated the community’s discussion. From the public statement, signed by User:NuclearWarfare, User:Risker and User:Billinghurst:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.
Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.
On careful review of this discussion, the closing administrators note the broad-based support for action from Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States. The primary objection to a global blackout came from those who preferred that the blackout be limited to readers from the United States, with the rest of the world seeing a simple banner notice instead. We also noted that roughly 55% of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations.

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently,

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.
But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

The decision to shut down the English Wikipedia wasn’t made by me; it was made by editors, through a consensus decision-making process. But I support it.

Like Kat and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation Board, I have increasingly begun to think of Wikipedia’s public voice, and the goodwill people have for Wikipedia, as a resource that wants to be used for the benefit of the public. Readers trust Wikipedia because they know that despite its faults, Wikipedia’s heart is in the right place. It’s not aiming to monetize their eyeballs or make them believe some particular thing, or sell them a product. Wikipedia has no hidden agenda: it just wants to be helpful.

That’s less true of other sites. Most are commercially motivated: their purpose is to make money. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire to make the world a better place — many do! — but it does mean that their positions and actions need to be understood in the context of conflicting interests.

My hope is that when Wikipedia shuts down on January 18, people will understand that we’re doing it for our readers. We support everyone’s right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We think everyone should have access to educational material on a wide range of subjects, even if they can’t pay for it. We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States — don’t advance the interests of the general public. You can read a very good list of reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA here, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Why is this a global action, rather than US-only? And why now, if some American legislators appear to be in tactical retreat on SOPA?

The reality is that we don’t think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond SOPA and PIPA: they are just part of the problem. We want the Internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.

Many popular websites and Internet organizations like Google, Facebook, and of course WordPress also expressed their opposition to the two bills. For instance, Google will place a link on its home page to protest anti-piracy measures in the U.S. Congress.

Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith said in an email today: “We oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet.”

The Internet is the last stand of freedom and civilization of our age. The Americans are fighting the government’s plan to control, regulate or even nationalize the World Wide Web. If passed, SOPA or PIPA or both would not only affect free speech in the United States and the so-called “rogue” foreign website” and online thieves; it would also affect every Internet user in any part of the globe.

As this online article explains, many “egregious provisions” in SOPA and PIPA “would drastically change the way we use the Internet (for the worse), and punish millions of innocent users who have never even thought about copyright infringement.”

This excellent source explains how SOPA and PIPA will affect non-Americans or foreign bloggers and webmasters who own US-directed sites:

The really unsettling part of the bill is section 103. It is titled “MARKET-BASED SYSTEM TO PROTECT U.S. CUSTOMERS AND PREVENT U.S. FUNDING OF SITES DEDICATED TO THEFT OF U.S. PROPERTY.” On a first reading, it doesn’t sound that frightening. Read through section A1.

  1. DEDICATED TO THEFT OF U.S. PROPERTY- An ‘Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property’ if–
    1. it is an Internet site, or a portion thereof, that is a U.S.-directed site and is used by users within the United States; and
    2. either
      1. the U.S.-directed site is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates–
        1. a violation of section 501 of title 17, United States Code;
        2. a violation of section 1201 of title 17, United States Code; or
        3. the sale, distribution, or promotion of goods, services, or materials bearing a counterfeit mark, as that term is defined in section 34(d) of the Lanham Act or section 2320 of title 18, United States Code; or
      2. the operator of the U.S.-directed site–
        1. is taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the U.S.-directed site to carry out acts that constitute a violation of section 501 or 1201 of title 17, United States Code; or
        2. operates the U.S.-directed site with the object of promoting, or has promoted, its use to carry out acts that constitute a violation of section 501 or 1201 of title 17, United States Code, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement.
    3. QUALIFYING PLAINTIFF- The term `qualifying plaintiff’ means, with respect to a particular Internet site or portion thereof, a holder of an intellectual property right harmed by the activities described in paragraph (1) occurring on that Internet site or portion thereof.

Wow, now there’s a chunk of legalese that’ll make your eyes gloss over. Let’s cut straight to the nasty bits.

An `Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property’ if [a portion of the site is US-directed] and is used by users within the United States and is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables or facilitates [copyright violation or circumvention of copyright protection measures].

Still doesn’t sound that bad, but consider this: Any site that allows users to post content is “primarily designed for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables copyright violation.” The site doesn’t have to be clearly designed for the purpose of copyright violation; it only has to provide functionality that can be used to enable copyright violation.

This means that YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Gmail, Dropbox and millions of other sites would be “Internet sites…dedicated to theft of U.S. property,” under SOPA’s definition. Simply providing a feature that would make it possible for someone to commit copyright infringement or circumvention (see: 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0) is enough to get your entire site branded as an infringing site.

Furthermore, you may be painted as infringing if you, the site owner, “take deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of…the site to carry out acts [of copyright infringement or circumvention].” This means if you deliberately decide that it’s not cost-effective to screen every piece of content and determine whether or not it is copyright-free before it is posted to your site (whether there is infringing content on your site or not), then you are labeled as an “Internet site…dedicated to theft of U.S. property.” Simply the act of not actively screening every piece of content makes you a criminal under SOPA.

Continuation…

Section 102(a)(2) permits the attorney general to take action against foreign sites (i.e., sites that do not fall under U.S. jurisdiction) if “the owner or operator of such Internet site is facilitating the commission of [copyright infringement].”

We’ll expand on this further down, but the really scary thing here is that there isn’t any qualification that the site be solely for the purpose of theft, only that it facilitate it. Since copyright violation is ridiculously easy, any site with a comment box or picture upload form is potentially infringing. Furthermore, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions are no defense. You, as a site operator, become liable for copyright infringement committed by your users, even if you comply with DMCA takedown requests.

This isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the bill because the power lies with the attorney general, rather than the copyright holder. But it’s not good, either. The language is so broad that it could be wielded against most any foreign site the AG chooses to target.

If the AG chooses to take action against a site (either against the operator, if they are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, or against the site itself if no one under U.S. jurisdiction can be found), then a subsequent court order would require the following:

  • Internet service providers will be required to block your access to the site (section 102(c)(2)(A)(i)) within five days.
  • Search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) will be forced to remove all references to the offending sites from their indexes (section 102(c)(2)(B)).
  • Ad providers (Google AdSense, Federated Media, etc.) will be required to stop providing ad service to the site.
  • Payment providers (PayPal, Visa, etc.) will be required to terminate service to the site.

Effectively, this bill gives the attorney general the power to fully censor foreign sites that the government does not have jurisdiction to take down directly. The most immediate example is WikiLeaks — under such an order, your ISP would be forced to block your access to Wikileaks. Once the technical means to do this are in place, then it becomes very easy for this power to be extended.

Implementing censorship protocols and giving the keys to the government is a scary, scary thing, and SOPA should be opposed simply based on this provision alone. But that’s not all.

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