The internet war begins
On Wednesday January 18, anyone visiting Wikipedia was met with a black page headed: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.”
The blackout formed part of a larger protest against two bills put before US Congress: 'Stop Online Piracy Act' (SOPA) and 'Protect IP Act' (PIPA).
Broadly speaking the bills could give US courts power to block foreign websites infringing copyright, and sites linking to them – as well as block advertisers or other companies from working with them.
The bills were temporarily shelved, allegedly due to levels of protest. But backed by powerful lobbies, notably Hollywood’s media and entertainment giants, they will not go away.
The next day Megaupload.com was shut down. Its founder ‘Kim Dot Com’ and senior employees were arrested in New Zealand. Visitors to what was one of the largest file-sharing sites in the world are now met with an ‘FBI Anti-Piracy Warning’.
Its closure was seemingly unconnected to Sopa and Pipa, but many saw it as part of a recent trend. Just like two events the following week.
On January 26, Twitter announced it would introduce "country-specific" censorship, resulting in more blackouts and protests. The same day, the UK and most other EU states signed up to ACTA: the international 'Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement'.
Some describe ACTA as the biggest threat to internet freedom, calling it ‘SOPA's Big Brother'. Hacker group Anonymous claims it would impose "new criminal sanctions forcing internet actors to monitor and censor online communications."
Anonymous, who spearheaded Twitter blackouts, have announced plans for "a huge operation" against Acta. And February 11 has been named 'International Acta day of Action', with protests planned against 'anti-democratic treaty agreements'.
The Pirate Party UK supports the protests. Its leader, Loz Kaye, says: "Visible public protests have forced ACTA onto the political agenda. Our politicians must not ignore this. There is still an opportunity for parliaments to say no."
The European parliament officially votes on ACTA in June and many members appear sceptical. French MEP Kader Arif resigned as head of the negotiations, condemning the agreement’s lack of transparency.
He stated: “I don't want people to have their laptops or MP3 players searched at borders, there needs to be a clearer distinction between normal citizens and counterfeiters...ACTA goes too far."
Politicians are not united. And as governments and industry increase pressure, critics – many just 'connected individuals' – voice their opposition louder than ever. That fact could be one explanation for increased regulation.
Loss of control
Arnon Woolfson, Head of Content, Rights and IP at the agency Anomaly, is an expert on intellectual property. He believes industry leaders and politicians have become scared of 'losing control', "The Arab uprisings for example showed governments that they have much less control than they had. All this 'greater communication' makes the world a smaller place. That's scaring governments. And companies and brands."
Woolfson believes leaders closer to home are also frustrated, but that they will find it difficult to regulate the internet heavily: "It's almost too late. It has become the norm for many younger consumers to expect certain content not to be paid for."
With most 'decision-makers' coming from an older generation, Woolfson sees recent events partly as "cultural issues" and the present as a "transition period". But he believes some change will come:
"I think there will be more control needed. Until now, the internet has been treated as completely open and governments have seen the issues that come with it. I can see it being monitored more."
How much more is unclear. Among the protests there are calls for restraint. Twitter's censoring found many supporters, including online 'activists'. Following local law enables Twitter to censor content within countries – instead of being banned – but publish it elsewhere: arguably resulting in more free expression.
As for ACTA, the final version is 'softened'. It does not force ISPs to report customers, or customs to scrutinise goods 'of a non-commercial nature’. By the sounds of it, your iPod is safe. Many anti-legislation arguments circulating are out of proportion and some blatantly inaccurate.
But protesters fear an uneven fight against lawmakers and industry 'giants'. And calling some bills 'anti-democratic' is not far-fetched. ACTA, being a 'trade agreement', was negotiated largely in secret – and within the EU by unelected representatives. Many first heard about it through WikiLeak cables.
More bills with more acronyms exist – and are drawn up – than most people can or want to get their heads around. Brits might learn about another in the post, however: the Digital Economy Act (DEA).
When, or if, the repeatedly delayed DEA comes into force, British users illegally downloading film, music or other content may receive a warning letter, and subsequently have their connection temporarily shut down – or worse.
Before that or anything else of magnitude happens, we will hear about it. The debate – industry condemning income lost to piracy and opponents blasting laws impeding innovation and free speech – is not new. But it is now discussed more than ever.
Central questions remain unanswered: If harder legislation is brought in, will it threaten creativity and the ‘digital way of life’ as we know it? Will it help stop piracy in its tracks and enable creators to make an honest living? Or all of the above?
How do you think the proposed changes described below could affect you: as an art or design student, content creator or internet user? Tweet us @ArtsLdnNews or visit our Facebook page, Arts London News.