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.


  1. Just one note… companies like Google or Twitter or Facebook aren’t against SOPA so much because of some ideal of free speech. They’re against it because the law would allow blocking of sites that host pirated material. So, for example, if someone posted pirated material on YouTube, YouTube could be held liable or even blocked for that, even though the person who put it on there wasn’t a representative of YouTube. The only way to prevent that is to hire huge numbers of people to moniter all the new content, which is borderline impossible.

    I suspect that if Congress gets further education on the issue, and if they are able to design a law that won’t hold Google or Twitter liable for the content they host, all of a sudden the heavyweights will stop complaining about free speech issues.

    The law is clearly written poorly, by people who either don’t understand what they are doing or are beholden to entertainment companies. We’ll see what happens if it is rewritten in a more precise manner.

  2. @Ben, I agree with your take on the issue. From what I’ve been able to see, I am also opposed to SOPA and PIPA because they are too restrictive and display a lack of understanding of the relevant technology. However, I think that the goal of protecting intellectual property is worthwhile.

    What I find disturbing is the way in which this bill is being combated. First, I am troubled by the widespread idea that knowledge is and should remain free. Actually, knowledge is anything but. Knowledge–true, lasting, substantial knowledge–costs time, money, even lives. Reporters put themselves in jeopardy for a story. A scholar dedicates fifty years of his life to find the proper edition of a certain text. A team of researchers spends millions of dollars to understand the nature of reality at the subatomic level. This pursuit of knowledge cost these people. Now I understand that many such individuals will pursue knowledge only for its sake, but nonetheless, the worker is worth his/her wages. A skilled craftsman like a woodcarver is compensated for producing a fine product. The least we can do is acknowledge the sacrifices inherent in knowledge-based vocations.

    Moreover, I am not right now so much troubled by the possible power of the federal government or the MPAA as I am by the power of these intenet sites. Today, millions of Americans will go to Wikipedia or Google and “learn more” about SOPA or PIPA. Yet their understandings will be fundamentally directed by the agendas of these sites. Wikipedia even admits it:

    “although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. For over a decade, Wikipedians have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Wikipedia is a tremendously useful resource, and its existence depends upon a free, open and uncensored Internet. SOPA and PIPA (and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States) will hurt you, because they will make it impossible for sites you enjoy, and benefit from, to continue to exist. That’s why we’re doing this.”

    It may be appropriate for these sites to fight for their existence, as they perceive it. Yet I believe the coming days will demonstrate just how much power they have over us. In having such “free” and “easy” knowledge at our fingertips, we must pay the cost of having all our knowledge filtered through a few central sources that have shown they will fight to exist and survive. And most people who use them will not accept the information about SOPA or PIPA that they present critically: they will get angry and fired up about “censorship”—because Wikipedia told them to.

    So again, I agree with Jason and CaPC in principle. But I do believe that: 1) Further steps DO need to be taken against piracy and copyright violation, 2) We need to recognize the extreme value that knowledge and truth have—they are neither cheap nor free, and 3) We need to be at least as wary about the power of information-providing internet sites as we do about the federal government.

  3. Geoffrey,

    Agreed. And here’s part of my concern, which may end up as an article one day:

    If we take Romans 13 seriously and believe that Christians are called to submit to governing authorities, then we need laws that are clear, reasonable, and intuitive. Right now, copyright law in general and these laws (from what I know of them) in particular are simply counterintuitive. Many, many, many people unknowingly violate copyright law in trivial and un-harmful ways, sometimes in ways that actual benefit society. Even worse, a huge number of these infringements are not clear infringements at all: they exist in this vague gray area that can only be cleared up by a court decision.

    What we need are clear, reasonable laws that encourage compliance. What SOPA and PIPA advocate (from what I can tell) is extremely strict enforcement of vague, highly contested, and outdated laws.

    So, in my view, Christians ought to strongly advocate for compliance with the law, while also strongly opposing burdensome and unreasonable laws.

  4. @Seth,

    I do realize that, but my fear is that the “popular” conversation on the issue could easily devolve into an argument about whether governments can ever block websites. Lots of people think that is the central question involved.

    But it isn’t… there certainly are instances where the government can block or limit sites.
    The question is one of degrees, and in my experience the entry of nuance into an argument is inversely proportional to the level of understanding in the general public.

    That’s why I’m cautious about the way Google and Wikipedia are handling it… they are focusing on “free information” as the central issue, when for them the clear central issue one of economics and legal liability.

  5. I think the “freedom” of the internet is inexorably tied to its economics. If content depositories cannot afford continued operation because government stipulations make it impossible to exist in a profitable manner, then the avenues for voice are lost. I don’t particularly mind the shorthand that Google and Wikipedia have been using because even though nuance is being lost, those whom its being lost on aren’t likely going to be able to pick up on it if its there.

    The number of people who remain technologically ignorant is staggering. Even in younger demographics (those that skew toward more savvy use of new hardware), I’m surprised at how easily this stuff soars overhead. I had a number of conversations in which I tried to explain 1) what SOPA is trying to accomplish and 2) why it won’t accomplish that and 3) why there is a danger in SOPA’s stipulatlions and 4) why many find the origins and backing of SOPA suspect. None of these conversations were easy-goings.

    People don’t understand the technology at play, don’t understand copyright issues (which makes sense, I guess, since copyright law is fundamentally broken), don’t understand piracy or the channels through which it operates, and certainly don’t understand IP or the economics behind IP issues.

    Nuance is not going to be their friend.

    That said, of course there are going to be financial motivations for Google and existential motivations for Wikipedia. Part of the grassroots surge against SOPA and PIPA was an effort to target companies that would be hurt by these bills and convince them of their financial/existential danger, thereby gaining support of groups that might not otherwise throw in their hat with “Protect the Lines of Communication.”

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