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How Not to Fight Online Piracy: US Government Paranoia May Stifle the Internet at its Most Crucial Time

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The start of 2012 hasn't been smooth sailing for the internet and its users. First up, the US government attempted to introduce the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) as a way of protecting US citizens' intellectual property on the internet.

The result was a media blackout from some 7,000 websites including Wikipedia and Reddit - even Google posted a message on its home page about the problem with the bill.

The collective response lead to the shelving of the Act until someone could come up with a more digestible format. But the internet's problems didn't stop there.

Next came the arrest of Kim Dotcom and the executives of his file sharing company Megaupload.com for allegedly generating $175million in profits for criminals and half a billion dollars in lost revenues for copyright owners.

The result of freezing Megaupload's traffic - responsible, at its peak for 3% of all online web activity - has caused legitimate business owners to not have access to their work stored on Kim's servers.

Finally, and this is the most worrying, out of America's attempts to legitimise US companies attempts at suing individuals - the EU has now signed up to a similar bill.

The ACTA - the Anti-Counterfeiting Trademark Agreement - signed this week, is a voluntary agreement between the 22 EU nations designed to combat counterfeiting in both the physical and digital worlds. However, it has stirred up controversy for both the secretive 'behind-closed doors' way in which it was drafted- it was signed in Japan - and that it allows ISP's to introduce surveillance technology to monitor people's online habits.

In Ireland a separate SOPA bill has been pushed through government, without any referendum on whether people thought it was a good idea or not.

Why is this a problem? We are effectively handing over the power to censor and stifle the internet to unaccountable bodies at a time when the internet is the lifeline to many country's flailing economies.

Allow me to explain.

Private corporations want the ability to shut down websites that allow people to upload, download, and share illegal music, film and entertainment. However, as law-makers have discovered over the years, websites that aren't located within the country's borders are notoriously difficult to pursue.

So, the recent spate of acts being proposed have come up with a way round it. In the Protect-IP world, governments and private companies would be allowed to dictate to internet service providers what sites they can and cannot block. NOTE: You would still be able to access the banned websites by entering their IP address. But shhhh... I didn't tell you that.

What's more, any sites based within that country caught sharing any links to those banned sites can be sued or shutdown. So, for example, if you own a website where people are allowed to post their own content - such as FaceBook, YouTube, or tumblr - on to your servers, if that content is deemed illegal, then you're responsible.

In the cases of big sites like those just mentioned, they could feasibly afford to slip up every now and again. For the thousands of tech startups that, on the off chance, accidentally find one of their users has posted illegal content, this could destroy them.

Other parts of these bills also allow governments to tell online advertisers and payment services to cease trading with sites or persons deemed bad. As to what 'bad' actually means represents a huge problem. If, for example, a home video is uploaded to YouTube and it happened to have music playing in the background - is that a deliberate copyright violation, or just a hapless mistake? In 2010, Sony said it was the former and tried to remove a video from YouTube of a child dancing to Shirley Temple.

Do we really want to have an internet where corporations can tell us what we can and cannot do on such a minute scale?

Today, musicians earn on average more money with the aid of the internet than they did without it. So if it's not about protecting artists' cash flow, what is it all for?

Fear? The unknown? The reality is, politicians are looking for something to blame for the way the economy is going, and the internet seems the easiest thing to pick on.

The Protect IP acts allow companies to sue other companies if they feel they're not doing enough to combat online piracy.

This is what is happening now to virtual locker sites such as Rapidshare, Filesonic and Fileserve, who are being targeted as they are, "overwhelmingly used for the global exchange of illegal movies, music and other copyrighted works."

But who is deciding that these sites are bad, and sites like Dropbox, YouTube, and Google - which all host illegal content, conscious or otherwise - are good? The answer is, nobody really knows.

Corporations already have plenty of tools to fight piracy - the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the 2007 PRO-IP Act, the2011 Anti-counterfeiting trade agreement - so why do they need an even bigger arsenal?

Going after a few pirates with a Howitzer would, and is going to be catastrophic for the web.

An economist will tell you when an economy is starting to show signs of growth, you need to encourage it to keep going by keeping inflation low, interest at a steady rate, and creating incentives for new businesses to spread their wings.

At 2010 estimates carried out by the Boston Consulting Group, the internet will make up 7.2% of the UK's GDP by 2015. If punitive and misguided laws are allowed to pass, then the future isn't going to look so rosy.

Don't let governments ruin something we've worked so hard to make good.

Around the Web

¬°Rob!, the SOPA online piracy legislation, and ill-timed ringtones on ...

Stop Online Piracy Act - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

SOPA online piracy bill to be redrafted: Voice of Russia

Online piracy: Stopping SOPA | The Economist