– By Syeda Qudsia, NUST Science Blog
CAUTION: This is a horror story. People with weak heart and accessories should continue at their own risk.
One fine morning, the internet was born. It started off as a small effort to save US in its cold war with Soviet Union. If this was a novel, I would have used all the technical terms like the ARPANET (which, essentially, is the network across which first data packets were sent), Network Control Program and the likes. But this one is a short story, with needs at hand. So we’ll just save our very own, detailed, 7×108 words essay on internet development for some other, hypothetical time.
Now internet was (and is) a very powerful tool. They soon realized it. Military and educational institutes had gone hand in hand for its development, and on the level of network, both had pretty much the same purpose: to communicate, regroup, and share knowledge and information. The first networks developed were very small, of course, but by 1990, they had started to fuse small networks like NSFNET, CSNET, and EUnet, to form one big, global community. Meanwhile, in a Franco-Swiss lab, an interconnected system of hyperlinked documents based on the internet was being formed to further pave way for conveying knowledge and research among active and redundant university groups. The system has forever been popularly known as the World Wide Web. What follows is the exact depiction of what they call the exponential growth of knowledge: by the last half of 1990’s, the world had logged on to the internet.
Happy Ending! (ta daan!) Internet helps people like us, weird and poor (to translate one of the best known urdu hybrid words) university students, so much. Assignments are not that big a problem, thanks to Google.com: It’ll throw us a lot of links to get information from, the top one of which will be Wikipedia for sure. Then again, modern internet has its ways of staying connected, like the blue, it’s-free-and-always-will-be site. And for knowledge seekers who prefer videos, I have one word for you (or is it two?): YouTube!
The horror sequel to the absolutely wonderful tech-fairy tale has two characters called SOPA and PIPA, which, alas, are not two cute, Korean girls. These wily created characters are not evil, but they have power, that could have serious implications for the weird-and-poor lot. These abbreviations come from good-looking and noble full names: Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act. They are two bills in the US Parliament at the moment, yet to be passed, to serve a higher purpose when enacted: to stop the violation of copyrights on the internet, in a very powerful way.
Internet has had copyright provisions under the umbrella of DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which can take down content from the internet upon request from the rightful owner of the intellectual property, or, from what I’ve been reading, a prankster. All of us have experienced this from time to time on YouTube, which is probably the site with the most potential towards copyright infringement. But the real thrill in the story comes with SOPA and PIPA in the picture.
PIPA will give the US government the right to take legal action against any site that facilitates or itself is responsible for violating copyrights, whether intentionally or not, and will enable US Attorney General ‘to remove or disable access to the Internet site’. SOPA is being viewed as the bigger stepsister to the internet in this scenario: it will create a black list of such sites, and through legal action, will force search engines and service providers from having any contact with the black listed ones.
This advance in the US Congress has been hailed by big media players including record labels, movie studios, and book publishers. These supporters think they will increase the responsibility of copyright holders to think twice about making their claim when taking any step of this magnitude, as they may face penalty if that claim is proven to be unjustified. And all those imageries of collapse of free knowledge due to the implementation of these acts are highly over exaggerated.
Now here are the little dents in fabric: both the bills are very vague, and the objection is “…their breadth or looseness – they can be invoked, if signed into law, without any legal investigation”1.Electronic Frontier Foundation of America has this problem with it: “The standard for immunity is incredibly low and the potential for abuse is off the charts” referring to the loss that will be suffered by the site due to the claim made by US governments or other companies.
The US government, with best interests of public at heart (no doubt), has a habit of hiding information on a need to know basis, and this will add to their arsenal. “It is not difficult to see how the American government could move against sites it finds either unpalatable or uncomfortable as a form of censorship”1.
An editorial in New York Times comments thus: “The bills would empower the attorney general to create a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising networks, all without a court hearing or a trial… allowing private companies to sue service providers for even briefly and unknowingly hosting content that infringes on copyright – a sharp change from current law, which protects the service providers from civil liability if they remove the problematic content immediately upon notification.”
This spreads, from the individual content to the site displaying it, to the DNS server broadcasting it. Go back and read that line again. Hit you yet? Our birth right, pretty-much-free-of-cost parallel universe, will cease to exist as we know it. Servers and sites closed in the US will affect the whole world. YouTube and Facebook, sites which are involved in copyright infringements by our very own hands, may shut down, search engines will be restricted, and blogging may become a thing of the past. A huge chunk of the internet will be taken down with a pretty potent censorship curse.
January 18 was marked as an Internet Blackout day by websites like Wikipedia, Reddit and WordPress, which darkened their homepages to protest against these bills in the US Congress. The news, for better or for worse, is that these bills are on the shelf for the moment.
And now you are wondering if this is the horror story? The answer is: yes. This could happen to you, you know…
P.S. We acknowledge Wikipedia for the image. NUST Science Blog does not hold copyrights to it. The image can be copied, distributed and circulated in any form considering Wikipedia is a free website.
1 Editorial “Black Screens”, The News International, Vol. 21, No. 373; Friday, January 20, 2012