SOPA: Unchartered waters

Owen Bennett comments on the controversy surrounding the proposed US anti-piracy law which has online websites reeling and has reignited the debate regarding online sharing.

Since the commercialization of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990s, online piracy has emerged as the most contentious and divisive predicament facing the internet. The burning issue first manifested itself openly in the summer of 2001, when in a high profile case, the peer-to-peer sharing site Napster was forced to close following legal action taking by several US record labels.

The issue has once again made headlines across the world in recent weeks, with the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently under consideration in the US Congress. The Act, should it be passed, would constitute a huge victory for those seeking to curb online piracy as it would allow lawmakers to force internet service providers to boycott websites which support piracy.

A number of influential online entities have publicly criticized the bill, as many see it as thinly veiled online censorship. Indeed, last week Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia, temporarily shut down its English-speaking version in protest at the proposed law. Moreover Google, a highly profitable international company, launched an online petition against the bill, as it would be forced to exclude search returns relating to websites accused of supporting piracy.

SOPA raises deep issues, regarding the nature of freedom and property rights in the age of the internet. Indeed, no one can argue against the reality that the internet’s greatest strength and weakness lies in the sense of freedom it promotes. The lack of censorship and accountability on the web encourages and harnesses thought and the exchange of ideas. While some may of course abuse the freedom the internet offers, there can be no doubt that such regrettable actions must be endured as a necessary cost of the online freedom we deem so essential. In that context, SOPA can be seen as a dangerous attempt at censoring the web.

Allowing government lawmakers unprecedented regulatory powers concerning the internet has rightly been met with huge opposition, with industry giants recognizing the threat such measures pose to their existence and development. Web entities such as Facebook and Youtube, staples of the online world, would face huge difficulties from the passage of SOPA, as much of their success can be attributed to user-supplied content such as uploaded music and video links.

However, the online piracy issue is far more problematic than one might firstly imagine. Simply put, society depends on the existence of property rights ensuring individuals and firms can safeguard what is rightly theirs and need not fear misappropriation from others. Should individuals and firms lose faith in power of the state to enforce property rights, crisis would inevitably ensue and incentives to produce and innovate would virtually disappear.

It is with regret therefore that the founders of the internet were somewhat lax when it came to respecting property rights in the online sphere. The internet has particularly disrespected the notion of intellectual private property, with many in the creative arts seeing the fruits of their labour distributed openly without limits or compensation.
Indeed, peer-to-peer sharing, while appearing harmless, is hugely corrosive. It is stealing, albeit in a more sophisticated and less personal manner. Rampant piracy destroys the incentives to create and threatens the livelihoods of those who work in areas susceptible to piracy, such as the music industry.

As such, something must be done to curb the spread of piracy and restore credibility in intellectual property rights. However, it appears difficult to see how measures aimed at tackling piracy can be reconciled with the sacrosanct notion of freedom upon which the internet flourishes. What is certain however is that SOPA, in its current form at least, offers no real solution to the issue.

Given that the bill is likely to be scrapped in the face of huge public and industrial pressure, the issue of online piracy is unlikely to be resolved in the short term.