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The Fight Over #SOPA -- Both Sides of It -- Carries On Online

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 16 2011

Of course the advocacy efforts over the Stop Online Piracy Act would use the Internet as a main stage.

I've been watching this Avaaz.org petition in opposition to SOPA and noticed that it's gained something like 3,000 signatures in a matter of minutes. Right now it's at almost 187,000 signatures. Tumblr, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge and others have all either slapped a "Censored" sticker across their logos on their websites, added a "Website Blocked" splash page across their homepage or put up a post urging visitors to sign a petition in opposition to the bill. Tumblr, for instance, has a contact-your-congressman tool built in to their anti-SOPA page.

But theirs are not the only petitions circulating at present; this vaguely pro-SOPA petition has nearly 40,000 signatures and this one has 8,475. Creative America, a group backed by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, CBS Corporation, the Directors Guild of America, IATSE International, NBC Universal, the Screen Actors Guild, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, Viacom, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros., sponsored both of those.

What are they fighting over? The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on it right now. The bill would make a court order the only thing between many websites based overseas accused of copyright infringement, or some other purported abuse of intellectual property rights, and a large-scale shunning that essentially disconnects that site from many structures of the Internet: people looking for a site at its usual domain name would no longer be able to find it, it wouldn't show up in search engines, payment processors like Visa or Paypal would be obliged to stop handling transactions on the site owners' behalf for that site and advertising services would have to stop doing business with them. Among other reasons this causes concern, some intellectual property owners and law enforcement officials send content removal requests under existing rules with such high volume that they have demonstrated questionable legal grounds for removal and even an incomplete grasp of whether they were demanding the removal of content they actually owned. On the other hand, this white paper from the AFL-CIO, a SOPA supporter, cites Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development figures from 2005 that pegged the various piracy and bootlegging activities as part of a $200-billion industry. To content producers, that's money they should be receiving for their work.

What this bill proposes to do is legislate a stimuli to which the entire Internet would have to respond. To opponents, this smacks of the Great Firewall of China, and would turn Twitter into something akin to Weibo, a similar Chinese service — a subtext there being that not only can the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei not use Weibo, his name is a banned search term there. The conversation around SOPA reveals just how closely linked the ideas of free speech on the Internet and freedom of speech generally have become in the United States.

"On the margin, therefore, DNS filtering will no doubt reduce piracy," Jerry Brito wrote earlier this month for Time's Techland blog — DNS filtering is the bit where a domain name would no longer work. "But what we have to ask ourselves is, at what cost? And that cost is legitimizing government blacklists of forbidden information."

One other thing: It looks like real people are having real disagreements over the bill online. One place they're hashing it out is on a Change.org petition page.

"Websites trafficking in stolen film and TV content get nearly 150 million visits every day, more than 50 billion visits per year," a user going by the name Whitney Boe, the only signer to leave a comment on the pro-SOPA petition on Change.org I could find who had taken more than two or three actions on the platform — and is thus likely to be a real person — wrote. "As an independent film producer I have seen my films that I put my own money into, uploaded to the internet for free viewing. Why people don't understand this is theft is beyond me. Do you steal from the grocery store? Do you walk into a Starbucks and just take what you want without paying?"

But other people used the same petition to express disagreement.

"Tricked into signing this," a user who goes by the name Matt Zillhardt wrote. Calling Boe out by name in a later comment, he added, "Censoring the internet to protect a few corporate fat cat executives is not going to help the movie, music, and TV industries."

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