Thursday, January 19, 2012

This is quite a departure from my usual topics on this blog, but I'm about to become extremely busy and not sure how much personal writing I'll have time for. So this is for my super techie friends who got all fired up over this issue.

Hanover -- Proponents are calling it the largest Internet protest in history, albeit without citing precedents. But the blacking out of scores of websites yesterday was enough to attract the attention of Upper Valley residents, many of whom lauded the protest of two anti-piracy bills currently being considered by federal lawmakers.
     Websites as popular as Wikipedia and as obscure as, a Dartmouth-based technology research lab, essentially went dark yesterday to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, in the House of Representatives, and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, both which are being heavily pushed by Hollywood to prevent the illicit streaming and downloading of movies, TV shows and music.
     Opponents say it's not that they support online piracy, but rather that the legislation poses larger threats of censorship and does not allow for due process.
     “We're following other large groups that believe in free speech on the Internet,” said Tiltfactor founding director and Dartmouth digital media professor Mary Flanagan, who also blacked out her personal website. “It's really important that we have a larger discussion before (legislation gets passed) that nobody really wants except corporate interests.”
     Even those who passionately support intellectual property rights, like Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, say they cannot get completely behind the bills.
     “I think payment of and fair compensation for intellectual property is a huge issue,” said Craven, who noted that he was in Bejing recently to promote his film Disappearances and was offered a bootleg copy of it for 80 cents. While piracy hurts him financially, Craven doesn't believe that the bills adequately address the real issue for independent filmmakers, which is a national distribution model that favors blockbuster films and hurts independent filmmakers financially.
    “Ultimately, I think the piracy bill is largely tied up with commercial media. It does not solve the problems of what I call cultural media producers,” he said.
     But supporters of the bills such as the Motion Picture Association of America counter that the legislation will help save some 300,000 jobs, $16 billion in earnings and $58 billion in economic output that are lost each year because of copyright infringement and pirated content.
     Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is chief sponsor of the Senate bill, which some feel is less controversial than SOPA. Leahy said in a statement that many of the websites blacking out sites yesterday, including Wikipedia, would not be affected by his bill, and that much of the information being propagated is “flatly wrong.”
     “Hiding behind the black box of self-censorship does not resolve the problem that is plaguing American businesses and hurting American consumers,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is American businesses, American consumers and American workers that are feeling the brunt of this problem.”
     But instead of aiding American businesses, the bill could actually hinder them, said Sukie Punjasthitkul, a project manager at Tiltfactor.
     “I think the way it's worded is very vague, and it's almost guaranteed to get abused,” Punjasthitkul said. “Not only is it going to stifle innovation, it is basically a form of censorship because there's no provision to say what sites get taken down. There’s no due process at all.”
     Though the intent is to protect U.S. companies, “if it does go into law I think that companies are just going to go overseas, ” Punjasthitkul said.
     Librarians are also rallying against the bills. Norwich Public Library director Lucinda Walker was at a Vermont Library Association meeting yesterday and said SOPA and PIPA were among the hottest items on the agenda. “Many librarians are absolutely against SOPA as it's currently written,” Walker said. “It's a matter of free speech, like the Patriot Act or any of these broad laws. We’re taken aback and concerned.”
     On the plus side, Walker noted, librarians from across the state joked that with Wikipedia down for the day, patrons might be inspired to visit their local libraries. “Can't live without Wikipedia? Call your public library!” she said with a laugh. Another round of blackouts is said to be planned for Monday.
     At Dartmouth's Baker-Berry Library, sophomore Eddie Zapata was initially confused when he was blocked from looking up information on Warren Buffett on Wikipedia yesterday morning, but the self-proclaimed film buff said the inconvenience would be nothing compared to being blocked from watching copyrighted movies online.
     At the help desk, student volunteer Josh Cyphers said the campus was abuzz with the issue. It was the first thing he heard about from his roommate when he woke up in the morning.
     But other students said that while there's been a huge pushback against the proposed legislation, no one fully understands the implications if the bills get passed.
     And that, in a nutshell, seems to get at the heart of the problem. Despite all the fuss, no one really knows how the bills might affect the future of the Internet. Many of those opposed, including some Senate Republicans, are simply asking for time to figure it all out. Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) said he hopes the conversation can continue, but that the bills need work before they're passed.
     “No one questions that online piracy and counterfeiting are real problems with detrimental impacts to rightsholders, their employees, consumers, and the U.S. economy,” Bass said in a statement.      “However, I have serious concerns that the Stop Online Piracy Act goes too far in undermining the critical freedoms and functions of the Internet in the name of stopping this illegal activity and I am opposed to the bill as it is written.”

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