Amid heated debates and the uproar surrounding the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, Congress has postponed its vote. Fears are growing that the law aimed at fighting copyright infringement will ultimately lead to censorship.
As the Obama team travels around the globe preaching the virtues of a free internet, US lawmakers are considering legislation that would make taking down the worldwide web as easy as a walk in the park. The government would be able shut down any website suspected of hosting copyright material, no court warrant needed.
Programmer and net activist Aaron Swartz says under the new law the government will not be taking down the infringing material; it will take down the site entirely.
“And it does it even without a trial, to find out whether it’s illegal or not,” he argued. “Copyright law is extremely complicated, there are lots of things that look like copyright infringement, but turn out to be licensed in one way or another. Even a site like YouTube that has mix of different kinds of content, under this bill the entire site can get shut down.”
Companies like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook are furious over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. Google co-founder Sergey Brin compared the bill to censorship in China and Iran, saying: “Imagine my astonishment when the newest threat to free speech has come from none other but the United States."
Legendary computer scientist Vint Cerf – widely hailed as one of the founders of the internet itself – said the legislation has the potential to bring about unprecedented “censorship” of the web.
Swartz himself has been under investigation for sharing bulk files of United States Federal Court documents on the web. In July, he was arrested for downloading roughly 4 million academic articles from a protected computer.
He says the laws would make it very easy to silence internet whistleblowers.
“By using copyright as a wedge issue, suddenly we are able to put this power in the hands of the government, and then once they have it, it can be expanded to deal with the whole range of other things,” he said.
“Anytime a news organization, or activist group, or critics tries to put up some internal documents that were leaked, or things like that…All those documents are copyrighted.”
But not only could it affect freedom of speech but also businesses, by potentially giving companies easy tools to shut competitors down.
Congressmen are debating legislation – which could potentially shut down their websites under the proposed law – because all host content that was copied from somewhere, like TV news clips.
The legislation would give the US government sweeping powers to stifle web sources. So as America preaches internet freedom to the world, at home, it is preparing to censor it.