Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Internet sheriff is coming to town

The Internet is about to be policed. In the USA there are government proposals under the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) to restrain those web sites that allow users to download material that is subject to copyright. In the EU there has been a requirement on all member states to strengthen their copyright legislation in order to bring about the same result. Ireland has implemented this but there was an oversight in the legislation that has to be rectified.

There’s been a lot of protest to these proposed measures, especially in the US, by Internet companies such as Google and Wikipedia as well as by private individuals. A more sinister development has been the “denial of service” attacks that have been made on US government and other agencies connected with the piracy prevention proposals.

When it announced that it was about to enact further legislation to fix the problem in the EU mandated legislation, the Irish government was faced with the outrage of Internet users. In the circumstances this seems like a copycat reaction to the situation that has arisen in the USA, because there wasn’t a murmur from anyone when the original law was passed.

Many opponents of the new moves have characterised them as an attempt to censor the Internet. That allegation needs careful examination in the light of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the defence, almost to a fault, by the USA courts of this principle. For example, the US Supreme Court has ruled that protests by anti-gay religious fundamentalists at the funerals of soldiers that had been killed in Iraq, which create serious further anguish for the relatives of the dead person and which often include posters saying such things as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, are allowed under the First Amendment provisions.

Internet piracy involves the distribution, over the net, of material such as songs, films or written works without paying the person who created it in the first place. Preventing piracy is an extension of the principle that has allowed authors, performers and producers to make records, CDs, books and films in the knowledge that anyone who tries to rip them off will be prevented from doing so. It’s a vital incentive for people to work at being creative.

The protests have a certain irony. In the past, many performers, especially in the music industry, complained that they were being seriously exploited by the record companies, who are now among the biggest supporters of SOPA et al. Then technology improved to the point where most of them could set up their own recording studios, often at their homes. Now we’ve moved on further, to where additional technological advancement, i.e. the Internet, is facilitating another generation of rip-off merchants.

There is a difference between freedom of expression and the protection of intellectual material. The Internet will have to be policed in order to ensure that copyright law is observed. To attempt to leave it in its current Wild West state is na├»ve. To refuse to recognise the principle of copyright protection is unfair to the world of creative endeavour. Those who organised and signed petitions against SOPA, and the web sites that blacked themselves out in protest, would be doing a much better job if they put their time into helping create meaningful legislation rather than preventing it altogether. The “denial of service” attackers are bullies and intimidators – their attitude is “do what we want or we’ll prevent you from operating at all”. Even the word they use to describe themselves, “Anonymous”, is indicative of a group that has something to be ashamed of. They must be resisted at all costs.

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