SOPA, PIPA: Internet freedom or fiefdom?

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Illustration by Sara Scherba.
War between protecting digital assets, protecting digital freedom

By Julius Williams

The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), Prevent Internet Piracy Act (PIPA), and the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) are three bills introduced in Congress in 2011 to stop online piracy.

The Recording Industry Association of America cited a study by the Institute of Policy Innovation which claimed that the piracy of music has caused 12.5 billion dollars in losses a year globally to the industry. Similar studies conducted through the University of California, the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon suggest that while the effects are difficult to measure accurately, it can be estimated that movie sales lost to piracy account for 3 to 4 billion dollars annually.

Not all economists agree. A 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that “economic losses resulting from counterfeiting cannot be substantiated due to the absence of underlying studies. Generally, the illicit nature of counterfeiting and piracy makes estimating the economic impact of IP infringements extremely difficult…”

However, recognizing the problem is quite different from solving the problem.

“SOPA on the surface is a good idea, let’s stop online piracy,” said James Hopper, chair, Web Applications. “The problem is the way I read SOPA…you’re guilty until proven innocent and you can’t prove yourself innocent.”

Hopper said he believes that the music and movie industries are rightfully upset about online piracy but that the bills introduced to Congress last year over-reached.

“This is the struggle we are having,” Hopper said. “Their content is being stolen. But is the website responsible for the content someone posts on their site?”

Hopper said he believes that good legislation must be as he calls it “democratic…small d.”

“It’s the general principle of what is open and equal,” Hopper said. “How do we right it so that it makes sense and is enforceable?”

Ben Messner, who teaches the radio production class at the college, agrees.

“There is a need to regulate online piracy,” Messner said. “People are downloading entire CD’s and those sites need to be cracked down on.”

Like Hopper, Messner said he agrees that the bills in their current form leave a lot to be desired. Messner is the production director for sports radio 810 in Kansas City. Their website has an open forum where users can interact.

“Our websites are designed to be about sports,” Messner said. “If somebody posts on our forum and it’s a link to a free movie…it’s ridiculous for us to be sued…”

Students at the college also did not agree with the bills. An informal survey conducted in the food court polled 50 students. Out of the 31 students that were familiar with the bills, not a single person supported them.

Although the bills in their current form were not passed, the issue of how to deal with online piracy will not go away.

“We are at that clichéd fork in the road,” Hopper said. “I am hoping that we go down the path where information is open rather than restricted. SOPA won’t happen but some other version may. There are voices out there trying to protect privacy but not stomp on the right to get information.”

While some interests want to restrict and control the ways users can interact online, others are pursuing the original ideas of the internet, the open sharing of information. Only time will tell which “fork in the road” society will take.

Beyond the profits lost or lobbying dollars spent on both sides, there is a cost to online piracy that is much closer to home that professor Messner wants people to consider.

“You have to think of who spent the time to make that,” Messner said. “How much of their livelihood are you cutting into because you’re not doing it through the proper channels? If it was your stuff, how would you feel?”

Contact Julius Williams, sports editor, at jwilli78@jccc.edu.

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