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A tattered web: how censorship could cripple the Internet

By in Opinions

Think of the web as a functionally organic, lifelike network. It’s made of more than just some bits of plastic and fiber optics. There are communities of real people, engaging in open discourse and sharing ideas. Also, cats. So many cats.

Adorable feline infestation aside, the Internet’s “organic” nature can be attributed to the way in which information online is organized and joined together by hyperlinks.

The web’s hyperlink structure works kind of like the synapses in your brain, or the blood vessels in your circulatory system. Everything is interconnected, designed to pass information back and forth, sometimes in multiple directions simultaneously. It can be mind-bogglingly complex but it works because there are relatively few blockages. People can traverse the web how they see fit.

But imagine what would happen if massive swaths of these connections suddenly blinked offline.

This is pretty terrible, but the reality of online censorship is even worse.

The first to be severed would be links between sites that foster uncensored communication and the free flow of information — search engines, social networking and media sites, etc. This is akin to an obstruction of the cerebral blood vessels that pump oxygen to your brain. Soon, entire subsections of the network would stop responding altogether.

If something like this happened to a living creature it would suffer a massive stroke.

The consequences are no less dire on the Internet, except they’re not localized to one unlucky person’s brain. They’re arguably far worse. The collective digital consciousness of the entire world could be crippled. We’re talking about something a lot more serious than Cute Cat Withdrawal (a real disease).

This is the risk posed by the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in October of last year that is scheduled to be voted on by Jan. 24 this year. If previous tablings of the bill are any indication, there is a strong likelihood that it may be passed unless drastic action is taken.

To put it simply, the bill would allow the U.S. government to block its citizens from visiting websites that have been tagged as potentially infringing on copyright — a designation that is nebulous at best, arbitrary at worst.

Click on a bad link and you’ll be confronted with a “site blocked” alert no different than similar blocks you might encounter in Iran, Syria or China. This screening would extend as far as requiring email providers to scan messages for infringing links, removing them when necessary.

What constitutes a bad link? Most of YouTube falls under the potentially “infringing” category, as do any other sites that simply link to an image, clip or excerpt (no matter how brief) of copyrighted content. This also includes discussion forums, news aggregators and even online libraries. The site itself doesn’t need to host the infringing content — if there are links on the site, it could be flagged as infringing.

If you’re still thinking that my deadly stroke analogy is melodramatic, or that censorship of the Internet in the United States isn’t a global issue, you’re mistaken. I’m hard-pressed to think of many greater threats to free speech and the forward progress of society altogether. Sure, people’s lives aren’t necessarily in danger, but that doesn’t mean SOPA is not a humanitarian crisis waiting to happen. Unrestricted access to the Internet should be treated as a fundamental human right. How else can we possibly keep tabs on those who may try to oppress us?

If SOPA is enacted, it would open a floodgate for a cascade of increasingly egregious online censorship. This trend will eventually leave us with a tattered remnant of the web we once knew. This is no exaggeration: online censorship in U.S. would surely impact the world beyond their borders. After all, for the last two decades the U.S. has routinely set the precedent for Internet law in the West, especially with respect to intellectual property law.

This routine is visible quite clearly in Canada. On four separate occasions since 2005, shortly after the U.S. government implemented the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Canadian government has followed suit with its own similar measures (see Bills C-60, C-61, C-32, and most recently, C-11). While none have yet been passed, each subsequent attempt has been inching closer to fruition.

The real threat here is not the lawful protection of intellectual property — a good practice, in theory — but how easily supposed copyright laws can be used as a guise or precursor to much harsher restriction of freedoms and violations of privacy, all through the all-too-arbitrary blocking of “infringing sites.”

[box type=”info”]UPDATE (01/17/2012): SOPA has been “shelved” by Congress, for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claims that SOPA will not proceed to a vote until “consensus” has developed.

This is a step in the right direction, but does not signal the end of SOPA. The PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), a similar and equally dangerous bill, is scheduled to be voted on in the US Senate on Jan. 24.

Click here to see how some websites, including Wikipedia, are taking action to spread the word against the risks posed by SOPA and PIPA.[/box] —
Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf

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