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Further's reaction to the Wikipedia blackout

10:46 on Wed, 18 Jan 2012 | 0 Comments

Today marks a day that most of us will remember for quite a while - Wikipedia has voluntarily shut down for 24 hours in a protest against internet piracy laws in the United States.

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, are laws which are going before the U.S. Congress. These acts are designed to prevent people from making music, film, television shows and eBooks available free of charge. However, it has been argued that they could wield much more power, and amount to an attempt to control and censor the internet - thereby limiting freedom of expression.

The Wikimedia Foundation opposes these potential new laws and has spoken out in its support on the blackout. 'If passed, this legislation will harm the free and open internet, and bring about new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States,' it said.

Like many companies that rely upon finding accurate, comprehensible information quickly and easily, Further has a firm response to the idea of SOPA and PIPA being brought before Congress.

Phil Howard, a developer at Further, is fully supportive of the stance that Wikipedia has taken against SOPA. Here, he outlines his reasons why:

"Wikipedia's stance is borne out of a superior technical knowledge and understanding to that demonstrated by the supporters and authors of SOPA, and similarly misguided acts such as PROTECT IP. Furthermore it's a stance in keeping with America's First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech that acts like SOPA are in serious danger of eroding. Whilst we do not enjoy such constitutionally-guaranteed freedom in the UK, we are, in respect to the internet, almost as much under the protection of the US First Amendment as any US Citizen.

"The mere act of linking to pirated material, not committing any crime of piracy in and of itself, should be protected like any other speech. Not because sites profiting directly from these links aren't in the wrong, but because branding something as whimsical as "linking" a crime could have very serious repercussions to many perfectly legitimate or innocent actions - opening many website operators, hosting companies, search engines and more up to deeper uncertainty and even the danger of prosecution. Wikipedia's stance is not in support of piracy, but is against misguided, scattergun attempts to curb it.

Why people who aren't in the US should take note:

A common argument against Wikipedia's stance is that taking a global business offline for a day to protest a "local" issue is inherently wrong. However, to believe that SOPA, and similar acts, won't have a long-term affect on people throughout the entire world is short-sighted.

As an example, only recently a British student, Mr O'Dwyer, accused merely of linking to "pirated" material, has been extradited to the US in order to face trial for actions which aren't even considered a crime in the UK. He is in danger of facing up to 10 years in prison. Clearly, we're all in very real danger of having the extradition treaty abused in order to enforce a foreign countries poorly thought out laws upon us.


What next? The act of 'censoring' the internet - and why it doesn't work:

There are two facets to censorship on the internet. The first is that it doesn't work. One of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is quoted almost ten years ago in TIME magazine as stating: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."

This is a very relevant statement. The internet is not a single, policeable network. But an almost unfathomable, mind-bogglingly complex cluster of servers and clients spread across the entire globe. Attempts to quash piracy happening through the regular "DNS" or "Website Domain Name" system we're currently all familiar with, will simply result in pirate activities being pushed deeper underground, to more technically complex, distributed and secure channels.

As a recent example; once upon a time most piracy simply involved hitting a website and directly downloading an illicit file. The crime, in this situation, was easy to pinpoint - the servers literally contained gigabytes of pirated material, and if they were made remotely public would be quashed in no time at all. Now we have Torrents. A distributed method of file sharing where no single server contains the pirated material, but rather it's distributed across thousands of home computers across the globe. A "torrent file" then simply contains a set of links to servers which keep an eye on all these home computers, and put them in touch with each other so that a single user can eventually grab all the pieces of a pirated film, piece of software or song from these thousands of other end users.

Now the fight is against websites which provide these "torrent files" which aren't pirated content in and of themselves. They're links to servers which link to the content. Yes… it's that abstracted. The fight is against websites which link to files which link to servers which link to pirated material.

And then there are search engines. We all know that Google links to websites, and some of these websites link to files which link to servers which link to pirated material. Therefore proponents of SOPA believe that Google should have a responsibility to stop these links, which are ridiculously distanced from pirated material. The net result, then, will be that alternate search engines will crop up, or even something so far as an "alternate internet" piggybacking on the current internet and distributed to such an extent that it's impossible to police, control or, sometimes, even find.

The second facet is that innocent users will get caught in the crossfire. Piracy will not stop under the draconian policing of acts like SOPA. But in the crossfire of censorship, you might find your perfectly innocuous links to an outwardly innocent looking file, video or website could get you in hot water. Ultimately the only people who will suffer as a result from SOPA will be those of us who either aren't in the wrong, don't even know we were in the wrong, or were simply trying to exercise our rights to "Fair Use", satire, parody, or the production of tutorials, reviews or other fairly common online practises. And, again, if you think that doesn't affect you outside the USA, you're very much mistaken.

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