Column: Internet regulations challenge freedom

David Zemmels On the Record

The Maroon

David Zemmels On the Record

David Zemmels On the Record

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In China, the Communist government actively restricts access to information available over the Internet. On Tuesday, Jan. 18, you got a taste of a world where access to information online is restricted. Several Internet media giants including Wikipedia, Google, Twitter, eBay and others staged a 24-hour protest of the Protect IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act legislation before the U.S. Congress. Wikipedia actually “blacked out,” and users only saw a page that proclaimed, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.”

Our government needs to be very careful about how and why it tries to restrict activities on the Internet, or their efforts will backfire. With the PIPA/SOPA legislation, it did. The people spoke in the form of companies and individuals, and congressional support for the bills fell apart. Why? Democratic society is defined by many things, but chief among them is the idea that media represents both uncensored access to public information and a platform for free expression. These bills place unreasonable restrictions on both.

The U.S. Senate bill (PIPA) and the House version (SOPA) are aimed at foreign websites that infringe not only copyrighted media material but also counterfeit goods and medications. The bills provide two legal hammers for rights-holders who feel their copyright has been infringed: court-ordered blocking of domain names of infringing sites and allowing courts to order payment providers, advertisers and search engines to stop doing business with an infringing site.

One of the main opposition points is that the legislation does not do enough to protect against false accusations. If claims turn out to be false, the site suffers, but payment providers and advertisers are granted immunity, giving them little incentive to question the accusations or even reverse the decision.

Furthermore, media-hosting sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube are pressured to either monitor user-generated content or risk being cut off, transforming the bills into a legal hunt for every little violation of copyright. Blog sites would become liable if copyrighted material was found in a reader’s comments. The cute video of a child singing a copyrighted song would make YouTube cringe. In other words, the consequences of this legislation could go well beyond foreign websites sharing media illegally and could spread to every aspect of Internet-based media, from personal expression in a blog entry to socializing on Facebook.

Another complaint about the bills is that they are really attempts to fix a failing business model with legislation. The music industry faced this problem a few years ago, but music producers and musicians finally solved their crisis by instead making it easier to obtain music legally (iTunes, etc.). As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick writes, “As we’ve seen over and over again, the most successful (by far) ‘attacks’ against piracy are awesome new platforms that give customers what they want, such as Spotify and Netflix.” Other media industries need to learn from that lesson, as do our representatives in Washington.

Here is where you, the consumer and Internet user, come in.

Let’s not mince words: copyright infringement is illegal. But we need to balance attempts to protect right-holders’ property while continuing to protect the democratic values that are inherent in media interaction: freedom of speech and the access to uncensored public information. The power to take down an entire web domain or URL because of one perceived violation of copyright is using a sledgehammer when a scalpel would work just as well. Too many innocent voices would be silenced.

What can you do? First, don’t download media illegally, or you become part of the problem. Second, know your rights. For example, there are exceptions in copyright law known as “fair use,” which allows for the use of copyrighted material within certain guidelines (which are admittedly vague). YouTube does not make a determination of fair use before copyrighted materials are taken down. Finally, be ever vigilant of attempts by our government to curb your freedom as a participant in the networked public sphere that is the Internet, especially in order to protect corporate profits.

Stay informed. Sign online petitions. Talk to friends. Perhaps most importantly, use your democratic right as a citizen of this nation to speak out. Contact your state senators. A site like is a great tool for this.

David Zemmels is a

mass communication professor.

He can be reached at [email protected]