Hot Topic: SOPA, Internet Piracy and Online Culture

Hot Topic: SOPA, Internet Piracy and Online Culture

Aram Sinnreich

Aram Sinnreich

Two Internet piracy bills that were before Congress prompted online protests, including a 24-hour blackout of Wikipedia, and sparked concerns about censorship. Aram Sinnreich, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies in Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information, believes the legislation - intended by their sponsors to restrict access to pirated, copyrighted material - would do little to help American productivity and would severely restrict online culture. Although Congressional leaders on Jan. 20 postponed action on the bills indefinitely, Sinnreich says he is certain the legislation will be revised in some form soon. Sinnreich is the author of Mashed Up: Music, Technology and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) and has written about music, culture, law and technology for the New York Times, Billboard and Wired.

Rutgers Today: What are SOPA and PIPA?

Sinnreich: They are two bills in Congress that purport to protect intellectual property and fight Internet piracy. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is in the House of Representatives; PIPA, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, is in the Senate. 

Rutgers Today: What is the purpose of the bills?

Sinnreich: Supporters say they are necessary to defeat online piracy, especially overseas, by restricting access to the copyright-protected, pirated material, thus preserving the value of that material and the jobs of the people who produce it. Among other things, they would require internet service providers to block access to websites offering material infringing on copyrights – pirated versions of movies, books, television shows, and so on. 

Rutgers Today: If they become law, will the bills do that?

Sinnreich: Not really, in my opinion, and the cost in terms of civil liberties would be phenomenal. The current law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, already puts all the power in the hands of accusers, who tend to be corporations, and takes it away from the accused, who tend to be individuals. PIPA and SOPA go a quantum leap further in producing a power imbalance over online culture because they concentrate on censoring entire domains, while the existing law targets individuals and their allegedly infringing files. Networks, like YouTube, would be held responsible for what they carry. There would be no judicial oversight, no checks or balances. Effectively, the government and large corporations would have the right to censor the Internet. There’s a question about how far that right would be pushed – it’s hard to imagine them actually shutting down YouTube – but that’s no guarantee some future administration might not try.  

Rutgers Today: All right, suppose networks like YouTube are restricted. Suppose I can’t get access to stolen copyrighted material. So what?

Sinnreich: The flow of ideas slows down considerably. If the bills were passed and effectively enforced, the power of corporations and governments would be increased, and the scope for alternative politics and innovative culture narrowed. It would be harder for groups like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party to organize, I think, if YouTube were significantly restricted, or if networks restricted their users to a preordained set of Internet sites and services. Ironically, the country most often cited as the home of online pirates, China, already has this sort of regulation in place and enforces it vigorously. Do we really want to go there?

Media Contact: Ken Branson
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