There’s hearings starting today for new legislation that could have dire consequences for the internet, and it’s likely to pass rather quickly if no one objects. The short version is that it gives the government broad and ambiguously defined power to block access to and bring lawsuits against any site containing or linking to copyrighted material, as well as forcing advertisers (the lifeblood that makes most of the ‘free’ webcomics and blogs and whatnot possible) to cancel their funding. From a distance that might not sound so bad, but in applications this act’s flaws are numerous.
This goes much farther than just stopping people from torrenting bootleg movies or sharing albums (both of which copyright holders already can, should, and have successfully sued for). Remember, any site that contains or links to copyrighted material would be a target under this law. No more startup blogs writing game reviews. No more showing people that cool AMV you made/found. No more protest videos set to kickin’ 70’s rock music.
Youtube. Facebook. Wikipedia. All information sources for millions in America and billions worldwide. All containing copyrighted material. All likely to be sorely thrashed if this law passes.
‘That’s a worst case scenario’, you might say. ‘Surely they won’t be irresponsible with this power’, perhaps. I’d like to live in that world, but the truth of it is that the entertainment industry generally react to the perceived threat of the internet with all the patience and restraint of a honey badger. Sadly, like most new weapons folks try to build against piracy it will primarily be wielded against folks who do little or no harm to the industry, and even those who help it by maintaining public awareness of classic games and movies and music and whatnot. Nerd nostalgia tributes for the legends of old is great kindling to get everyone fired up when they put out re-releases and reboots and remixes all that jazz.
So in conclusion, this is one of those laws that could do a lot more harm than good. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last; you may have noticed everyone and their uncle wants to legislate the internet now. I think the next few years are going to be critical to what shape online communication will take in the future. Legal precedent is a powerful tool; if this passes we’ll see a lot more me-too legislation come up in its wake. I’d like to see more successful strides against piracy, but not if it means strangling the internet in its crib. The idea of a worldwide communication network that allows people to communicate and share ideas with folks they may have never met in their lifetime used to be something of pure science fiction. Today I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say it may be mankind’s most important, far-reaching, world-changing invention to date. We’re more aware today than ever before of the political, economic, and environmental shape of our world, and we can still do better. We can’t stop now.