The World Wide Web is going to feel a lot less wide on Wednesday. For a span of 12 hours, some of the Internet's most popular sites – including Wikipedia, Reddit and the Internet Archive – will go dark, inaccessible to the tens of millions of users who visit every day.
The blackout is part of one of the most sprawling digital protests undertaken to date (for our live blog of the blackout and reaction, click here). Many of the world's biggest tech companies have banded together with civil liberties activists, librarians and myriad other groups to protest two pieces of proposed U.S. legislation targeted directly at the way the Web works: The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.
The laws, if passed, would give greater powers to the U.S. government to essentially blacklist foreign websites accused of hosting copyright-infringing content. Critics claim the laws are excessive in both remedy and scope, and would essentially make it impossible for sites such as YouTube and Flickr to exist in their current form.
While it appears lawmakers have decided to shelve – or at least rethink – SOPA for the time being, the anti-SOPA blackout will still go ahead on Wednesday, as Internet activists attempt to kill it outright. They say the proposed law fails for a several reasons:
Webmasters are especially concerned about the onus the proposed laws place on anyone linking to a particular piece of content. Because the legislation could punish someone who links to a site that happens to also host copyrighted content, those doing the linking could be forced to first make sure the site is completely free of such content – an incredibly difficult task in the case of massive sites, such as YouTube.
2: Cross-Border Effect
Even though SOPA and PIPA are proposed American laws, their impact is unlikely to be contained within U.S. borders. As Canadian copyright expert Michael Geist points out, SOPA defines "domestic" IP addresses – the numeric code by which websites are listed – as an address for which the allocating entity is located within the United States. However, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which is located in the U.S., doesn't just assign IP addresses domestically – it's also in charge of allocating addresses to Canada and 20 Caribbean nations. That means, American legislation designed to alter the domestic Internet landscape could end up altering much more.
3: Unintended Consequences
Among the provisions of the proposed laws are sections designed to criminalize the use of technology that would allow users to essentially get around the law itself. For example, software tools that let users hide their geographical locations, thereby avoiding the blacklist of banned sites that SOPA would create for U.S. Internet users, would be illegal. However, such tools are vital for activists in places such as the Middle East and China. As such, the proposed laws could have a chilling effect on those activists and the organizations that make the software they use.
In addition to Internet service providers, provisions of PIPA and SOPA allow the government – and, in some cases, the individual copyright holders – to compel online payment services, ad networks and search engines to stop doing business with or listing targeted websites. And unlike other laws that focused on websites involved primarily in piracy, the bills expand the focus to include sites on which any infringing content is found, no matter how minuscule. As such, American users of cloud storage or video hosting sites could find the entire site, along with their own content, suddenly much more difficult to access, because a single user uploaded a piece of copyrighted content.