ICE blogs

January 30, 2012

Mass protests defeat internet blacklist bills

Barry Turner reports on a rare victory for people power in the US over internet censorship

On 18 January 2012, a seldom-seen phenomenon occurred in politics: the politicians listened to the people. Members of the United States Congress abandoned support from two bills on copyright that would have severely restricted the use of the internet as a news media platform.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protection of Intellectual Property Act were abandoned by many of their former supporters including one of the co-sponsors of the legislation. SOPA and PIPA, as they have become known, are bills purporting to protect intellectual property rights. It seems that few actually believe that this is their real purpose and that strict control of the content of the internet or even blatant censorship are the main motives for introducing laws which would so clearly infringe free expression.

The effect of these laws would have been to place responsibility for policing internet content on the website owners making copyright infringement a crime of guilty until proven innocent. This unconstitutional move has been defeated by those the bills were aimed at in an unusual demonstration of democracy in action.

Some sites, such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, Craigslist and others, completely shut down for the day. Millions of Americans were encouraged to contact their representatives and the effect was quite extraordinary. The day before the blackout, there were 80 on-the-record supporters and 31 opponents in all of Congress. The day after, there were 101 opponents and only 65 supporters - and that number continued to grow.

These two bills are far from dead and will be returned to Congress after amendments. This is not just an American free expression issue. Were these two bills to become law in America they will affect the whole world. Foreign violators of a SOPA-style law promulgated in the US would not be safe from its effects because they do not live there. Those with interests in America would be under threat as would anyone alleged to have breached the criminal elements of these bills, with extradition and trial a real threat.

All those who believe in free speech should resist the use of back door legislation like SOPA and PIPA; American voters, via the internet, frightened their representatives into backing away from this undemocratic legislation. Let’s hope that this becomes a worldwide tactic.

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