The people have spoken—and the people want their digital freedom! As the 112th Congress found out just last week, the prospect of the federal government infringing on the open and free Internet has been both politically tumultuous as well as philosophically unpopular in the eyes of the American Public.
Currently, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act governs copyright infringement activities which take place on the Internet. Yet, there was a growing sense among some in the entertainment industry--and in Congress--that this Act was not doing enough to protect IP rights. So, lawmakers responding to pressures from the entertainment industry devised a new bill to combat online piracy, developed two broadly worded anti-piracy bills--the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The move pitted Hollywood and its woes over unauthorized downloading, against Silicon Valley techies who claim that "the legislation would hand the government Orwellian powers over the Internet." However, just recently certain lawmakers--including the bill's co-sponsor Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida--withdrew their support. Even the White House came out publicly against SOPA.
A key impetus to the sudden turn in popularity for the bills came from a staged anti-SOPA protest on January 18th from Internet sites such as Google, Wikipedia, and Craigslist.com. Wikipedia, for example, "went dark" and shut down completely. The site's co-founder, Jimmy Wales explained his concern in a recent CNN interview over the broad language in the bill, citing apprehension over the unprecedented amount of power the bill would give the government to take over the Internet and its content--Wikipedia and similar sites would struggle to function under the effects of SOPA due to the sheer number of links they would be required to check when posting content. Wales also affirmed his belief that "when it comes to First Amendment concerns, censoring the Internet is never going to be the right answer."
For now, Congress has put further debate on these bills on-hold, although it is clear that the fight is far from over. On January 21st the FBI shut down the file-sharing website Megaupload as part of what seems to be the federal government's theme for 2012: taking a hard anti-piracy stance. The debate also touches upon the existential question of whether Internet access is a basic human right or whether it is simply a vital tool which our society has obligations to guard against potential abuse in the face of an increasingly interconnected world.
For now, we can just remain thankful that the government has backed down and we are still able to catch up on missed episodes of Glee on various Megaupload-like sites--even if they have Japanese subtitles.