Over the last few weeks, the Wikipedia community has been discussing proposed actions that the community might take in protest to proposed legislation in the United States called Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) in the House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (Pipa) in the US Senate.
If passed, these laws would seriously damage the free and open internet, including Wikipedia. With more than 2,000 Wikipedians commenting on this legislation from all over the world, and a clear majority in favour of taking action, this will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it’s a decision that wasn’t lightly made. From midnight on America’s East Coast and from 5am in the UK, Wikipedia will go dark for 24 hours.
It was felt that both Sopa and Pipa are pieces of clumsily drafted legislation that are dangerous for the internet and freedom of speech. It provides powers to regulatory authorities to force internet companies to block foreign sites offering “pirated” material that violates US copyright laws. If implemented, ad networks could be required to stop online ads and search engines would be barred from directly linking to websites “found” to be in breach of copyright.
However, leaving to one side the fact that there are more than enough adequate remedies for policing copyright violations under existing laws in most jurisdictions, these draft bills go too far and in their framing. Sopa and Pipa totally undermine the notion of due process in law and place the burden of proof on the distributor of content in the case of any dispute over copyright ownership.
Therefore, any legitimate issues that copyright holders may have get drowned out by poorly-framed draconian powers to block, bar, or shut down sites as requested by industry bodies or their legal representatives.
Copyright holders have legitimate issues, but there are ways of approaching the issue that don’t involve censorship.
Wikipedia depends on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. This needs other sites to be able to host user-contributed material; all Wikipedia then does is to frame the information in context and make sense of it for its millions of users.
Knowledge freely shared has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikipedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, will mean that the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.
All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy — and regulate the internet in other ways — that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond Sopa and Pipa: they are just part of the problem. We want the internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.
Steve Virgin is a Board member and Trustee of Wikimedia UK.