Some of the best-known sites on the internet, including Wikipedia, are limiting access today in a "Dark Wednesday" protest against legislation before the U.S. Congress intended to curb copyright infringement that critics say will limit the scope of the web and adversely affect legitimate websites.
Popular Canadian sitesjoining the protest include Tucows, a Toronto-based site that hosts free software for download, Identi.ca, a social microblogging service and the blog of University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, an oft-cited expert on copyright issues.
There are two similar bills addressing protection of intellectual property online currently being considered by Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which is before the House of Representatives judiciary committee, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), which is to be voted on by the Senate next week.
Last weekend, the White House signaled its opposition to the bills, which are supposed to make it easier for copyright holders to go after "foreign rogue websites" suspected of facilitating infringement of copyright.
Under the current draft of SOPA, courts could order credit card firms, online payment companies like PayPal and advertising networks to stop doing business with those websites. They could also order search engines to stop linking to them and internet service providers (ISPs) to block their customers from accessing them, although in recent days, the lead sponsor of SOPA, Republican congressman Lamar Smith, has backed off the ISP provision. PIPA was also being revised to address some of the concerns voiced in recent days.
Taking sides on SOPA
SOPA's backers include the film, recording, media and pharmaceutical industries while internet and technology companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, Yahoo and eBay have voiced opposition to the bill.
The debate on the proposed legislation has been heated, as some recent tweets on the subject show.
After the White House voiced its opposition to the bills, media baron Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of Fox News, tweeted, "So, Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery."
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted on Tuesday: "The encyclopedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened!"
In Canada, SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) general counsel Paul Spurgeon told CBC News, "Anything that helps copyright owners get paid for the use of their works is welcome."
SOPA would affect Canada
Although SOPA and PIPA are intended to target "rogue" websites, for Canadians, the concern is that if the laws are passed, there might be collateral damage that harms legitimate sites.
Geist outlined some of the ways the proposed laws could affect Canadians in a Jan. 17 blog post:
In the eyes of U.S. law, websites with domain names ending in .com, .net and .org are treated as American domestic domain names, regardless of where their owners are based, he wrote.
SOPA ignores the fact that IP addresses are assigned by regional, not national, entities. The American Registry for Internet Numbers allocates IP addresses for Canada (both for individual customers and governments) and 20 Caribbean nations, as well as the U.S. However, under SOPA, the IP addresses it allocates would be considered "domestic," i.e., U.S., IP addresses.
SOPA effectively grants the U.S. jurisdiction over some foreign websites, said Geist.
"The long arm of U.S. law reaches into Canada using SOPA," he said.
Intellectual property protection as U.S. foreign policy
If SOPA becomes law, Geist expects the U.S. to try to export its rules to Canada and other countries.
He notes that the Canadian government's proposed copyright modernization act, Bill C-11, was modelled on a similar U.S. law backed by the same industries pushing SOPA. The bill has been criticized for its provisions to prohibit the recording and copying of content protected by digital locks, which many say are too restrictive and prevent even the lawful use of copyrighted material.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that Bill C-11 came about at least in part as a response to U.S. pressure on Canada to tighten its copyright laws.
Spurgeon said SOCAN hopes Bill C-11 "will also address the issues of online piracy, but it remains to be seen if the proposed law will achieve this purpose."
Under SOPA, intellectual property protection will become "a significant component of U.S. foreign policy," Geist writes.
If a website owner outside the U.S. wants to challenge a U.S. court order issued under SOPA, "the owner must first consent to the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts."
A viable alternative
Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the internet rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, raised several other concerns about SOPA in an interview in November with Dan Misener of the CBC Radio program Spark.
SOPA could require Visa, MasterCard and PayPal to block payments to certain foreign websites or to websites a U.S. court rules are facilitating access to those sites. The payments wouldn't necessarily have to come from Americans; they could be from anywhere in the world.
McSherry also worries that under SOPA, some of the websites that activists living under authoritarian regimes, such as those behind the Arab Spring protests, use to circumvent government blocks on parts of the internet could be viewed as infringing on copyright and shut down by a U.S. court order.
But McSherry does see a potential benefit for Canada if SOPA becomes law: cutting-edge technology entrepreneurs will just offer their services outside the U.S.
"You may see a lot of new jobs in Canada," she said.
For McSherry, copyright is "an issue you cannot legislate your way out of." And with SOPA, she says, "the cost so far outweighs any conceivable benefit."
There is a simple solution, she told Misener: "Give people access to authorized, legitimate alternatives, and they will go there."