If you were planning to get your daily fix of LOLcats or Facebook Fail images, settle an office debate regarding some obscure fact with Wikipedia’s help, or spend some time perusing Reddit, then you’ve no doubt noticed something a little disconcerting today: All of these sites — and many, many more — have gone dark. It’s not because they all forgot to pay their bills at the same time, but rather, that they’re trying to raise awareness of two controversial bills that have been working their way through Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
Both bills share a common goal: They are attempts to fight online piracy. If passed, they would give the U.S. government incredible power when it comes to dealing with Web sites that are suspected of hosting, trafficking, and otherwise dealing in illegally copied movies, music, books, software, etc. Proponents say that SOPA/PIPA represent necessary steps to combat piracy and protect content creators, such as movie studios and publishers, from losing vast amounts of revenue. One of SOPA’s primary sponsors, Representative Lamar Smith (R., Texas), wrote a National Review Online piece defending SOPA:
The Stop Online Piracy Act is a constitutional bill that protects free speech and America’s intellectual property. The First Amendment is not an excuse for illegal activity. Simply because the illegal activity occurs online does not mean that it is protected speech. Like online piracy, child pornography is a billion-dollar business operated online. It is also illegal. That’s why law enforcement officials are authorized to block access to child-porn sites.
Similarly, this bill authorizes the attorney general to seek an injunction against a foreign website that is dedicated to illegal and infringing activity. The attorney general must go to a federal judge and lay out the case against the site. If the judge agrees, a court order will be issued that authorizes the Justice Department to request that the site be blocked.
Standing alongside Smith are a host of companies that include everything from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and Time Warner to L’Oreal, True Religion Brand Jeans, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
However, critics of SOPA/PIPA say that the bills will do little to stop online piracy. Rather, SOPA/PIPA may weaken the Internet and make it less secure and present significant hurdles to free speech. The White House has discussed the bills in terms best described as “measured” and certainly far from enthusiastic. But perhaps the biggest knock against SOPA/PIPA is the many technology and Internet-related firms of note who have spoken out against the bills, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and Twitter. Google’s Sergey Brin and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, along with a host of other tech luminaries, spoke out against SOPA/PIPA, saying the bills would “[g]ive the U.S. Government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran,” among other things.
But criticism of SOPA/PIPA hasn’t been limited to only their potential ramifications. Criticism has also been leveled at the method with which the bills have made their way through Congress. For example, during the House Judiciary Committee meeting on November 16 concerning SOPA, committee members were criticized for largely lacking the technical expertise to adequately discuss even basic Internet concepts. Critics also argued that the meeting was little more than a sounding board for lobbyists supporting SOPA, with only one dissenting opinion — that of Google lawyer Katherine Oyama — allowed to make their case.
But criticism of SOPA/PIPA hasn’t been limited to editorials and blogs: It’s taken on an almost grassroots approach. When it was revealed that domain name registrar Go Daddy supported SOPA, a backlash started brewing on sites like Reddit. A boycott was subsequently announced and individuals were encouraged to move their domains away from Go Daddy on December 29. Stung by the outpouring of criticism, Go Daddy dropped their support for SOPA. And Reddit users launched “Operation Pull Ryan,” in which they targeted Rep. Paul Ryan for his support of SOPA and promised to support one of his rivals unless he promised to vote against the bill. On January 9, Ryan said he would not support SOPA, saying that “it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse.”
Which brings us to today’s black-out, the most visible criticism of SOPA/PIPA to date. And so far, such criticism seems to be working, and even seems to be picking up steam. Following the White House’s lukewarm statements regarding SOPA/PIPA, House majority leader Eric Cantor announced that he was shelving SOPA for the time being, thus leaving PIPA as the primary focus for protest efforts.
So what does all of this mean for Christians? On the one hand, you have online piracy and content theft that robs legitimate content creators of compensation that is rightfully theirs (though some have argued that the financial impact of online piracy has been overstated). Clearly, we should want justice for those Internet-based charlatans who see undue profits from the work of others. On the other hand, we have efforts to implement justice that are, to say the least, questionable both in terms of their efficacy and their legality. Justice should always be our goal, but as the SOPA/PIPA controversy has revealed, justice is often far more complicated than we think — especially in as complicated a setting as the online sphere — and simplistic approaches are never the solution. Indeed, such solutions may turn out to be far worse than the problems.