Hands Off the Internet!

A resounding cry (or in some cases, just caps-locked text) spread like wildfire over the Internet this past month: “FUCK SOPA!”

And in case you’ve spent the last couple months under a rock, or you use dial-up, or something, it isn’t a movement designed to protest Mexican soups or chowders. The “Stop Online Piracy Act,” or SOPA, was introduced by Lamar Smith of Texas, on Oct. 26, 2011, into the House of Representatives, its full title being: “To promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes — H.R. 3261.” A companion bill for the Senate, PIPA, was also introduced.

And yeah, that sounds nice on paper, but some people didn’t think so.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, a movment that had been sweeping the web for months finally took effect, a triumph of the right to protest peaceably and the use of the internet to unite individuals as a powerful force. All over Facebook, profile pictures were blacked out, SOPA strike links were posted, and some individuals even completely logged off for a day. Small-time bloggers, like Terribly Good Stuff and Zapata! Photo, removed their archives in exchange for protest links or anti-SOPA threats. Individuals were encouraged to lambast their local congressman’s office with phone calls, to sign online petitions, and spam emails to as many politicians as possible.

But it wasn’t just the little guy who took action, either. Google replaced its trademark logo with a thick black bar, and a message about the dangers of the bill. Facebook’s homepage linked to SOPAStrike.org. Even Twitter, which faced huge threats from the bill, encouraged users to sign online petitions. But even more striking than these warnings were the number of websites that went completely dark on the day of. Reddit removed itself, claiming that SOPA passing would have just that effect. Joining them were the icanhazcheezburger network, WordPress.com, Torproject (which fights against internet censorship, and allows users to download proxies), and Mozilla. Perhaps the most effective method of protest came from Wikipedia, which allowed users access to the home page, and the ability to search for articles. The articles were even made temporarily visible, just long enough to give the reader a taste, before the page faded out and a protest message popped up. I don’t know about Congressmen, but I tried to use Wikipedia at least three times that day, without thinking, and each time I was left realizing just how useful that resource is.

And then the sun set on protest day, and slowly, everyone converted their websites back to normal. I replaced the black square with my original profile picture. Google returned its trademark logo. Reddit relaunched. And together, everyone waited. In fact, with the exception of the Hacktivist group Anonymous (who took down several pro-SOPA websites along with the Department of Justice home page, primarily in response to the take down of Megaupload.com), Jan. 19 was an incredibly quiet day for the Internet. Then, the news came. On Friday, the House decided to indefinitely take SOPA off of the table, in direct response to the intense amount of protestors.

“It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products,” said Smith, the Congressman who initiated the bill. He just couldn’t eat crow.

So, why the big protest in the first place?

Well, for one, SOPA wouldn’t really accomplish anything. Most piracy websites are from foreign servers, and could be rebooted within minutes of being removed the web. And even if the government censored our Internet, the way North Korea does, users with torrents or various proxies installed could still easily commit piracy.

The problem lies with what SOPA would do to legitimate websites. Hollywood could, in effect, use the bill to justify punishing entire websites for the actions of single users. So, if someone uploaded “Reservoir Dogs” onto YouTube, and Tarantino didn’t like that, he could sue the website for millions. The same could be done with links or pictures on Twitter, documents on Facebook, and any (even the legal ones!) file-sharing website. How would that affect the user? Well, whatever websites weren’t outright removed would be forced to start charging fees for use, simply to keep up with lawsuits and extra moderating. So, we can all heave a big sigh and say “Hooray!” that our protesting skills still have some effect.

But we’re not of the woods yet.

Because in 2008, the U.S. and Japan started forming a little bill called ACTA, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act. Basically, it’s like one big SOPA that affects the entire world, and allows politicians to censor our Internet. As you read this, the people of Poland are protesting it as vehemently as we fought against SOPA.

So, I urge you, dear reader, not to give up. Not to let the man get you down, not to let the government take away your right to free speech, and not to let tyranny be committed in the name of virtue. Because, fundamentally, there’s one deep, burning question you have to ask yourself about this whole scenario?

Why are we letting a bunch of old white guys who can’t even check their email by themselves tell the world how to run the Internet?

Ryan Cady is a second-year psychology major. He can be reached at rcady@uci.edu.