In 2007, there was a teenage boy with a hobby. This particular boy, age 13 years, liked to sing covers of popular R&B songs. His family, an endlessly encouraging bunch, posted these videos on YouTube. Fairly quickly, this boy gained a devoted following online, with fans praising his videos and talent. Life continued on as normal for this boy until one day, purely by coincidence, a record label executive named Scooter Braun clicked a link to one of the boy's videos. Very impressed by what he saw, Braun tracked the boy down and offered him a record deal. The boy's dreams had come true. Today, this boy – Justin Bieber – earns hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing his love of music and performing. Regardless of your opinion of his songs, there is no denying that Justin Bieber is hugely successful, and all of his success is due to his freedom to upload videos of himself singing covers of other people's songs. The internet has always fostered and facilitated such creative freedom, and stories like Bieber's are becoming more and more commonplace.
That may be about to change.
These last few days, it has been difficult to avoid hearing about SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). For those who are unclear, or unaware, they work as follows: if passed, these bills would grant the United States government and copyright holders (i.e. the entertainment industry) the right to block, shut down, and/or remove websites that are guilty of breaking copyright law. Ostensibly, this is to combat online piracy, an undeniably worthy goal. However, the powers granted to the US government and entertainment industry under SOPA and PIPA are, in reality, far too excessive. In order to accomplish the near impossible task of thwarting online piracy, websites that are even vaguely complicit in the theft of intellectual property – such as YouTube or Facebook – would be entirely fair game for copyright lawyers. An individual uploading a movie in 10-minute snippets on YouTube would be a felony for which the whole website could be charged and potentially shut down, as would singing a cover of your favourite song and displaying it on Facebook. Yes: the very thing that made Justin Bieber famous could be a criminal act in a very short time.
SOPA and PIPA would also grant the US government the ability to remove any given website's DNS (Domain Name Server) from the “internet phonebook”, so to speak. In simpler terms, typing “www.google.com” would no longer work if the government blocked the page. DNS blocking is a misguided and frankly awful idea, for two main reasons. First, blocking the DNS would not make it impossible to reach an offending website, it would only require the user to type the actual IP address into the search bar; it's as simple as copy/pasting “184.108.40.206” into the search bar instead of “www.google.com”. Clearly, blocking any given DNS would not block access to actual pirate websites. Second, and far more significantly, fiddling with DNS has the potential to damage the underlying architecture of the Internet itself – it is in fact possible, it seems, to “break the internet.” Blindly damaging a central entity of our modern era in order to block access to a 13-year-old's rendition of Rick Astley's “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the height of misguided problem-solving. In the same way as burning down a house to kill a single flea, SOPA and PIPA present solutions that would ultimately be more damaging than the problems they set out to solve. If piracy is to be stopped, SOPA and PIPA simply cannot be allowed to be the means by which it is achieved.
Admittedly, the worldwide internet protests that took place several days ago (on January 18th) went a long way towards ending any chance that SOPA or PIPA will ever be passed into legislation – but these two acts haven't gone away just yet. Even if SOPA and PIPA are nixed for good, similarly Orwellian, freedom-of-expression restricting pieces of legislation are bound to be proposed in the near future. It remains the duty of all people who value creative freedom to thwart these measures. Protest any proposed measures that echo SOPA and PIPA; send letters to politicians; flood social media. At the end of the day, democratic governments are answerable to the people, and it is only through being vocal that the Internet can remain to bastion of creative freedom that it (thankfully) still remains.
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