Dropping Science: What Are SOPA & PIPA?

We have a policy of steering away from political issues here on Beyond the Bunker. Steve and I share the site and it’s just fairer and simpler to keep politics out of the day to day content. That said, it really is hard to write a Science based feature this week without making at least some reference to the ongoing war over the Stop Online Piracy Act and it’s various cousins.

Essentially, SOPA is an attempt by the American entertainment industry to stop online piracy (hence the name) by allowing websites to be shut down if they are suspected of hosting pirated content or even links to it. These shut downs would not require evidence and the onus would be on the accused to prove their innocence rather than the other way around. The act also imposes a 5 year prison term for those caught uploaded copyrighted material. The popular example floating around twitter at the moment is that you could get 5 years for uploading a Michael Jackson song, which is 1 year less than the doctor who killed him.

The battle has been going back and forth for a while now. Earlier this week SOPA was shelved indefinitely after a plethora of negative stories in the press (including the revelation that under the act, the bill’s own author would be guilty of copyright infringement) however a couple of days ago it came back again and now it appears that the bill will make it to a Congressional vote. General consensus at the moment appears to be that this is largely being done because the politicians backing the bill don’t want to look like they caved under pressure from Wednesday’s blackout event in which several sites (including Wikipedia) went offline in protest and others (including Google) posted messages of protest on their home pages.

It gets even more dirty though. This week the American federal government shut down the controversial site Megaupload.com. Megaupload is a filesharing site that is widely used by legitimate artists to move large files around but has, in the past, had links to piracy. The fact the the company recently changed hands and had just published plans for systems that would allow artists to profit from shared material are apparently neither here nor there. it’s worth pointing out that this was all done using existing legislation and so does rather call into question what SOPA is supposed to be for other than to allow control of social networks.

In response to the Megupload shut down, hacker collective, Anonymous,  jumped into action and promptly took down the Department of Justice,  MPAA, RIAA and Universal Music Group sites in protest. Some people are already citing Jan 19th as the date that the first ever “digital war” began. It’s probably not quite as big a deal as that but it’s still getting very ugly out there.

Hopefully this has given you a bit of an overview of a time that, however it goes, will remain as a landmark in the history of the internet and possibly of free speech in general. Whatever happens, people are going to talk about SOPA for a long time, so you might as well brush up now!

D
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UPDATE: I scheduled this article in yesterday morning and since then events have progressed once again. At the time of writing both SOPA and PIPA have been shelved by Congress, pending further advice from experts. How long they will stay that way remains to me seen. You can read more about this latest turn of events here and here.

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