By William Tucker
Over the past few weeks public opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect-IP Act has reached a fever pitch. Today, many major websites have taken measures to protest the legislation with some, such as Wikipedia, going offline completely. As is typically the case with any controversial legislation, supporters and detractors have gone to great lengths to demonize one another while relevant facts are tossed aside. The purpose of this article is not to correct available information on the legislation, there are plenty of legitimate websites that provide this, but rather discuss a few factors that have contributed to the creation of SOPA and PIPA. While this legislation may be geared toward policing piracy, it would likely lead to other, more intrusive, means of government intervention on the internet.
As the internet has grown so to has the ability of anyone with access to upload or share a wide variety of materials. In many cases, some of this content was copyrighted and redistributed without the permission of the copyright holder. Famous cases involving Napster and the Pirate Bay are excellent examples of this. What becomes difficult when policing and disrupting piracy activities are that many offenders use different methods and websites for sharing material illegally. In essence, the proliferation of piracy is so widespread that it cannot be stopped nor even diminished without actually removing access to the internet. This is how SOPA and PIPA are designed to work. Should a website illegally host copyrighted material, regardless of who actually posted it, the entire website could theoretically be shut down via government intervention. It is this provision, which is largely open to the interpretation of the governing body, which has critics of the legislation so worried. Some websites such as YouTube and Facebook have hundreds of millions of users and policing them would cause an extensive financial burden. Theoretically speaking, a handful of offenders could disproportionately inconvenience millions of other, legitimate users.
It is here that we enter the realm of security. Known terrorist and criminal entities have an overt presence on many social websites. Once they are identified by their fellow users, or by the webmaster, their accounts are disabled only to show up again in a few hours. It requires nothing more than creating another free account. This begs the question, if these websites cannot stop an overt presence of a criminal or terrorist entity in a permanent fashion, how could the government reasonably expect these websites to police something far more prolific such as piracy? Another aspect of security to consider is anonymity. In fact, a group of hackers that likes to portray their work as Robin Hoodesque simply uses Anonymous as their name. The problem that has arisen from this is several groups now refer to themselves as Anonymous making the probability that law enforcement could disrupt their activities dubious at best. As these hackers begin to exploit more internet users, and not just the wealthy that they claim to target, the pressure on the government to do something, anything to stop these acts will gain traction. Ironically, most groups that claim to represent Anonymous state that they want to ensure freedom of information, but their actions may bring about an opposite effect. Thus, legislation such as SOPA is just the beginning of an attempt to police that which cannot effectively be policed.