Today, with the closure of one of the internet's richest resources. the English-speaking world stands greatly impoverished. In protest against two proposed bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate (the 'Stop Online Piracy Act' (SOPA) and the 'Protect IP Act' (PIPA) respectively), the English-language version of Wikipedia has taken itself offline for 24 hours. [That includes the Wikipedia links in this post, lest ye take the open internet for granted — ed.]
The provisions put forward in SOPA and PIPA enable the closing down and harassment of websites (not even necessarily located in the US) on the flimsiest of pretences: government censorship masquerading as copyright protection. But what exactly makes the laws so odious? There are four key, objectionable provisions, all of which are ripe for manipulation by rent-seeking parties (summarised from this link):
1. The Anti-Circumvention Provision, allowing the US government to close sites who offer advise on merely circumventing censorship mechanisms;
2. The “Vigilante” Provision, which would grant immunity from prosecution to internet service providers who pre-emptively block potentially offending sites, leaving them inherently vulnerable to pressures from a host of interested parties;
3. The Corporate Right of Action, enabling copyright holders to obtain an unopposed court order which would cut off foreign websites from payment processors and advertisers;
4. Expanded Attorney General Powers: therein giving the Attorney General the power to block any domain name and have their results barred from search engines: they would effectively cease to exist.
You don't need to be a rabid libertarian to realise both SOPA and PIPA are anathema to a society which readily proclaims its commitment to spreading liberal democracy; an integral part of which is the freedom of expression. After all, western nations have waged war purportedly in support of 'freedom' and regularly (this time rightly) criticise those nations which continually suppress freedom of expression online.
On their own turf however, governments seem evermore reluctant to allow the internet to remain the vital bastion of freedom that it is. Away from the stifling proclamations of state broadcasters and the mass media, the internet has revolutionised Joe Bloggs's ability to think independently: little wonder it is increasingly browbeaten from governments worldwide.
Economic consequences must considered too. If a website is to avoid being picked-off by the keen-eyed legal-sharpshooters that would undoubtedly thrive with the passing of these laws, they would have to employ an army of workers to constantly micromanage their site's content: one slip-up and it's potentially 'Game Over'. Who would want to invest in company stifled in a quagmire of draconian legislation, able to be shut down with the hit of 'Enter'? The internet's position as a motor of modern innovation would be seriously jeopardised.
Despite the promising words coming from the White House that freedom of speech and expression will be upheld, scepticism about Obama's commitment to liberty is well grounded: less than three weeks ago the 'National Defense Authorization Act' was passed, enabling the indefinite detention of almost anybody the US government sees fit – an unsettling omen.
Albeit not alone, the world's most powerful nation is walking down an increasingly questionable path. The internet is one of history's most momentous inventions: its fate is far, far too important to be left for politicians to decide.