Controversy has ensued around The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two bills currently under debate in Congress aimed at preventing the illegal copying and sharing of content, like movies and music, on the Internet. A vote in the Senate is scheduled for Jan. 24. On Jan. 17, websites like Wikipedia, Reddit and Boing Boing will “go dark” in opposition to the legislation. Sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter have also publicly criticized the bills.
The furor is fueled by the competing interests of consumers, lawmakers and entertainment producers to protect their content. The entertainment industry says it is suffering from the sophisticated and large-scale theft of its property, stolen by large file-sharing operations based in overseas jurisdictions. They have lobbied Congress to pass these bills and are requesting the Justice Department be empowered to punish sites that engage in piracy.
In opposition stands a vast community of Internet users who believe the bills are an effort to control free speech and go too far. If passed, the laws would give the Justice Department the power to block such websites, force Internet Service Providers to block these sites from their customers, force banks to cut off the website’s funding and even remove them from search engines.
In recent weeks, the controversy has come to a head. The Internet community, fearing censorship, has used more than 700,000 tweets and a million emails to tell lawmakers that either Act will rip apart the very fabric of the Internet.
“I take a very simplistic view,” said Daniel Lopresti, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Lehigh. “Government involvement in censoring any kind of communication medium is wrong. The two acts in question (one in the Senate, one in the House) can be seen as directly interfering with the infrastructure of the Internet, and hence there is no doubt that free speech and the free exchange of ideas will suffer,” he said. “I've seen analogies drawn to the kind of governmental oversight and interference that takes place in countries like China and it seems to me that there are existing mechanisms in the legal system that allow companies to protect their IP and seek redress when they believe they have been wronged.”
Jeff Heflin, an associate professor in the Department, has not read the bills themselves, but has followed the story.
“The more I hear about it the more I worry,” said Heflin. “I have yet to come across an internet expert who is pro-SOPA. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, is against it; Vint Cerf, one of the forefathers of the Internet, is against it; the list goes on and on.
“I think the intention is good, but the mechanism is completely wrong,” said Heflin. “It seems to me that SOPA is a bit like using a nuclear weapon to eliminate a cockroach infestation: it won't kill the cockroaches, but there will be an awful lot of collateral damage. There appear to be serious holes in the Act that will allow pirates to continue their actions unimpeded, and in the meantime Internet security will be hampered and law-abiding Internet companies risk being attacked by frivolous claims of IP infringement. I believe that the current act needs a serious overhaul before it would be acceptable. Internet experts must be consulted to come up with a mechanism that is capable of curtailing piracy without damaging the Internet infrastructure or harming innovation on the Internet.”