PIPA, SOPA, and Internet Freedom in a Globalized World

Visitors to Wikipedia on January 18, 2012 found the site temporary blacked out to protest PIPA and SOPA.

If you’ve tried to access Wikipedia today, you’ve noticed the site is blacked out. Visitors are not allowed to access Wikipedia’s vast collection of user-produced encyclopedia entries, but are instead taken to a jarring black screen that says the following:

“Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge. For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.” There is a link to “learn more” and a prompt to contact your member of Congress about the legislation.  Google, Reddit, Amazon, and other prominent internet-based companies have also blocked certain features on their sites or placed black “censorship banners” over content in order to protest the legislation.

At issue are two bills working their way through the U.S. Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).  As the names imply, they are primarily designed to stop foreign web sites from illegally distributing copyrighted material, such as movies, TV shows, and songs.  Opponents of these steps (whose arguments are summarized here) contend that the legislation gives the U.S. government sweeping powers to censor the internet using tools heretofore employed only by oppressive autocratic regimes.

This controversy reveals the complex tradeoffs between intellectual property rights, freedom of expression, and government power in today’s increasingly globalized world.  Many political scientists have drawn attention to the growing challenges that states face in controlling transnational flows of ideas, goods, diseases, people, and information in a world characterized by greater interdependence and instantaneous communications.  When websites located overseas–beyond the reach of domestic law enforcement instruments–can threaten Americans’ intellectual property rights and by some estimates cost American workers hundreds of thousands of jobs, the U.S. government finds itself in a relatively weak position and must resort to unprecedented steps such as PIPA and SOPA to reassert some authority over the “Wild West” of the 21st-century internet.

What do you think?  Are PIPA and SOPA reasonable steps to attack piracy, or do they unduly threaten the internet freedom of law abiding citizens?  Is there any way for states in the 21st century to control content on the internet without becoming the “Big Brother” that civil libertarians have longed feared?


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