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US politicians bail on anti-piracy proposals as American websites join the Wiki protest

By | Published on Thursday 19 January 2012

SOPA

As numerous US websites joined with Wikipedia yesterday to stage a protest against two sets of anti-piracy proposals working their way through Congress, the already nervous political community in Washington spent much of the day distancing themselves from the proposed legislation.

As previously reported, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would introduce measures making it easier for copyright owners to stop Americans accessing websites that allegedly infringe copyrights, has become increasingly controversial in recent weeks, leading to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ decision to take the English language edition of the online encyclopaedia offline for 24 hours in protest. Numerous other sites followed the Wiki lead, either going dark for the day, or protesting in other ways, some redacting elements of their own home page.

Opponents fear that the powers that would be given to the US Attorney General by SOPA to act on behalf of copyright owners would be open to abuse, and that access to websites might be blocked based on dubious allegations of infringement, with the owners of said sites having too few routes of appeal. This, opponents say, amounts to censorship of the internet, hence various web firms’ decision to self-censor for 24 hours in protest.

The wheels were already falling off the SOPA bus by last weekend as the White House expressed concerns about some of the recommendations Congress is considering. However, SOPA is not totally off the agenda, and opponents also point to another similar set of anti-piracy proposals being considered elsewhere on Capitol Hill going by the name of PIPA.

However, following yesterday’s protests it seems unlikely either SOPA or PIPA will become law in their current form, with the Speaker of the House Of Representatives, John Boehner, reportedly saying he didn’t feel either could now go to his congressional chamber for a vote. Meanwhile Republican congressmen Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, both sponsors of the PIPA legislation, officially withdrew their support, the former saying the proposals were “simply not ready for prime time” and that his congressional colleagues and interested parties should “continue working together to find a better path forward”.

Some have portrayed the battle over SOPA and PIPA as Hollywood v Silicon Valley, and if you choose to see it in those terms, the Valley is currently in the lead. However, the music and movie industries are unlikely to accept total defeat, and lobbying efforts will almost certainly continue. As previously reported, the Motion Picture Association Of America yesterday criticised the Wiki protest, claiming that the big web operators were refusing to come to the negotiating table to seek a compromise, whereby piracy can be combated without risking the censorship of legitimate sites.

And the US independent music community also threw its support behind at least the principles of SOPA amidst the protests yesterday, showing that the push for new anti-piracy laws isn’t only coming from the major players in the US music and film industries. Indie label trade body A2IM said in a statement: “Our independent labels and their artists have no practical way of taking down illegal links to their music from rogue foreign websites accessed via US search engines. We urge these search engines to support US content creators by working toward anti-piracy legislation acceptable to all. Let’s have a debate that genuinely acknowledges that the voices within our joint communities are deep, broad and diverse and let’s all agree that doing nothing is not an option”.

It continued: “The media has portrayed the issue as that of two giant industries (movies/music and technology) in conflict, as though this was a battle solely between very rich businesses. In fact, our members are small and medium sized independent businesses that invest in the creation of music and whose very existence is being threatened by the availability of illegal content online. We look forward to solution oriented discussions among all parties”.

That said, the music community was not united it backing SOPA and PIPA in the face of the Wiki blackout, with a number of artists publicly supporting those opposing the anti-piracy proposals. Radiohead, Wye Oak, MC Hammer, Benny Benassi and Peter Gabriel were among those to support the anti-SOPA movement on their websites or social media yesterday, while Trent Reznor, Amanda Palmer, OK Go and others signed on open letter that said that, while as artists they recognised the need for measures to combat piracy, they are also concerned about maintaining a free internet, and believe SOPA and PIPA do not properly balance these two needs.

The letter says: “We fear that the broad new enforcement powers provided under SOPA and PIPA could be easily abused against legitimate services like those upon which we depend. These bills would allow entire websites to be blocked without due process, causing collateral damage to the legitimate users of the same services – artists and creators like us who would be censored as a result. We are deeply concerned that PIPA and SOPA’s impact on piracy will be negligible compared to the potential damage that would be caused to legitimate internet services. Online piracy is harmful and it needs to be addressed, but not at the expense of censoring creativity, stifling innovation or preventing the creation of new, lawful digital distribution methods. We urge Congress to exercise extreme caution and ensure that the free and open internet, upon which so many artists rely to promote and distribute their work, does not become collateral damage in the process”.

Quite what will now happen with SOPA and PIPA, whether they’ll be quietly dropped, radically rewritten, or put on hold and then reintroduced in pretty much the same form when the hoo haa has died down, remains to be seen.



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