“The protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights on the Internet is critical for the United States, for its creators and inventors, and for the jobs it promotes and the economic promise it provides. There is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement and ensuring freedom of expression on the Internet.”
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Cynthia Wong, attorney for the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and Director of CDT’s Project on Global Internet Freedom, wrote in 2011 that while it is true intellectual property rights must be protected, we risk a very serious infringement on human rights work worldwide if the U.S. policy makers do not adequately address “how” we should protect intellectual property along side of our freedom of expression.
“Enforcing intellectual property rights and promoting Internet freedom are not — and should not be — mutually exclusive goals for the US government. Efforts to curb IP infringement in a manner that respects rule of law and free expression are not equivalent to government censorship. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on states to multi-task, protecting the right to free expression, the right to participate in cultural life, and the right of artists to benefit from their works at the same time. Setting up a false dichotomy belies the harder questions at the heart of current debates around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US: the question isn’t whether to protect, but how to protect intellectual property in the Internet age.”
SOPA and PIPA would allow the US government to obtain court order and require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and search engines to prevent access to a site if the site is found to infringe US domestic copy right laws. These two Acts would also allow the US government to order cease and decease of business dealings with such sites and censor domain name expressions, which would seriously hinder Internet security and sweep innocent expressions alongside. At the focal point of the quarrel with these two proposed laws is the possibility that user driven online communication tools such as Wikipedia and Dropbox could be severely hindered or even asphyxiated. The implication is profound; content platforms world-wide would have to closely monitor and police user behaviors, which would only lead to unnecessary restriction on privacy and free expression. This directly impacts on human rights work across the globe, according to Ms. Wong, because if the social communication tools so often employed by activists are implicated under these Acts, then the activists will invariably lose their organizational tool and expression platform.
There is another complication to the passage of these laws. If the United States were to pass laws that limits non-US website activities, then there is little to stop other sovereign nations from passing domestic laws limiting Internet usage to whatever social policies they deemed important. If the US can protect copyrights, what will keep China from restricting political speech by ex-pats or Arab countries passing laws restricting speech on religion?
“If many other countries adopt these mechanisms, we risk further Balkanisation of the Internet, undermining its benefits as a global platform for expression, democratic engagement, and economic development. . . .The US cannot effectively urge other governments to stop blocking Internet content that violates local laws when the US is supporting precisely the same mechanisms in service of Intellectual Property enforcement.”
- Cynthia Wong.
I am happy to report that back in January, 2012, a massive online protest effectively stopped these two proposed laws. Together, there were over ten million petitions signed, over eight million calls made, over four million emails send, more than one-hundred-and-fifteen thousand websites participated, and almost a billion people were blocked from websites. This staggering show of support forced Congress to shelve the bills indefinitely.
So am I late to the party?
Are the human rights activists safe? Is the world at peace? Are we free?
As you have seen on the news recently, one of the most brilliant and vocal supporter of free and open Internet died a few days ago. Aaron Swartz, co-author of the old Rich Site Summary (now Real Simple Syndication—RSS), killed himself last Friday.
Swartz had co-founded Reddit and would spend his own money to move public court records, which the government-run system--PACER--charged a fee for, onto an open public site.
Swartz, according to media sources, had long suffered from depression and had committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment apparently due to the mounting pressures from federal charges filed against him for using the MIT’s computer network to download nearly five million fee-charging academic journals from JSTOR. The prosecutors of the case had threatened to put him in jail for more than thirty-five years with fines of more than a million dollars. Ironically, “after a 10-month trial program, JSTOR opened its archives to free reading by the public” and it had told the federal prosecutors that it wasn’t interested in pursuing charges against Mr. Swartz.
So it seems while massive online protests are able to stop legislators from committing mayhem against the free and open online public, their police cronies are not so inclined to play nice and yield. They wanted to make an example of someone for “wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.” (Wall Street Journal, Jan 13, 2013). In the process, they have not silenced his voice by putting him in jail and letting him rot; instead, they have made a martyr of him so his voice will forever be heard.
"Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." George Orwell - 1984