By Ali Symons, Senior Editor, Anglican Church of Canada and Executive Member of WACC-North America
||Activists may have halted the United States’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), but the fight over internet content regulation continues.
On Jan. 18, an estimated 7,000 websites—including Google and Reddit—protested SOPA. English Wikipedia blacked out its site and posted a statement saying SOPA “could fatally damage the free and open internet.” Millions of people echoed this concern through online petitions, editorials, and rallies.
SOPA and its sister bill, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), were designed to stop copyright infringement online, especially on foreign websites. Under SOPA, a website accused of posting or linking to copyrighted material without permission would be blocked by U.S. internet service providers (ISPs.)
|Photo by Chetan Soni (WACC Photo competition 2010)
Critics of SOPA said it challenged freedom of expression and privacy rights. They argued that big media companies would have too much power to shape the internet and ISPs would become responsible for policing users’ content.
Both sides agreed that traditional models of intellectual property protection do not work on the internet, where people can easily copy, share, and remix copyrighted material. SOPA supporters saw this as a problem that should be stopped, while many activists called it a new era of collaborative content creation.
Other commentators took a middle road. They agreed that copyright needed to be protected online, but pushed to keep a safe middle space, one of “fair use,” where internet users could still interact with copyrighted material.
It was the opposing voices that won out. On Jan. 20, U.S. lawmakers announced they would postpone a vote on SOPA. Yet days later, many anti-SOPA campaigns pivoted to address another issue: the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was under consideration by the European Union.
ACTA is a global treaty that harmonizes copyright protection and intellectual property standards across borders. It applies to online and physical material, including generic medicines, seeds, and luxury goods.
Already eight countries—including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan—have signed on.
Some critics condemn ACTA as more dangerous than SOPA. They argue that it conflates counterfeit and piracy and it could also force countries into taking unreasonable punitive measures against offending citizens. The agreement was also negotiated largely in secret.
In Poland, thousands protested against ACTA in the streets. Polish government websites were hacked. Kader Arif, the European Parliament's rapporteur for ACTA also resigned in protest, citing lack of transparency in negotiations.
Despite this pressure, 22 EU member states signed ACTA on Jan. 26, though it must still be ratified by the European Parliament, which will consider it in June.
Even beyond ACTA, some are beginning to track agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade agreement that includes provisions on intellectual property.
With more emerging agreements like this, the future of “the free and open internet” is still undefined. Yet after the impact of anti-SOPA and anti-ACTA protests, activists are hopeful that citizens will influence government policy on internet content regulation.
WACC believes that communication is a basic human right, essential to identity, dignity and community. Recognizing that in many parts of the world, digital and social media have become significant forms of information and communication, WACC’s new Strategic Plan 2012-2016 notes, “These new media could be a democratic tool for new forms of grassroots mobilization but could also further consolidate information control and censorship by governments and global conglomerates.” (http://www.waccglobal.org/en/about-wacc/strategic.html)
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