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SOPA is the equivalent of smashing the Gutenberg press

Printing Press BookOne of the most important technological advances in the past thousand years was Gutenberg’s printing press. As one Italian bishop put it, it would take three printers working for three months to produce 300 copies of a book – but it would take three scribes a lifetime each to complete the same number.

Yet it wasn’t only the speed of the printing press that made it so revolutionary – it was its ability to produce practically perfect copies of written text. No longer would students have to worry about errors or omissions introduced by scribes working off second or third-hand copies – they could instead rest assured that their copy was as accurate as the original master.

Ideas could spread faster, farther, and with more fidelity than ever before – not for nothing does Elizabeth Evenden, a lecturer in the history of books, call the new technology “the internet of its day”, with information no longer “coming purely from the pulpits or disseminated by governments.”


Over five hundred years on, we can now make 300 copies of a book – and send them across the world – not in three months, but in the blink of an eye. This advance has led to the flowering of online commerce and the exchange of new and diverse ideas between people who would never otherwise have been able to talk, let alone meet. Unsurprisingly, our ability to copy information has not filled everyone with joy, since it has also led with widespread piracy of copyrighted materials.

Spurred on by big media companies, the latest effort by governments to stamp out piracy comes in the form of two bills from the US Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

According to these acts, if a US site (or a foreign site that has its domain name registered in the US) is found to be “committing or facilitating the commission” of copyright infringment, then, on the request of a rights holder, it is subject to seizure in a way that many scholars believe violates due process, depriving people of a fair hearing and suppressing free speech.

It gets worse. If the targeted site is not based in the US and thus cannot be seized, then the following actions must occur:

1) US sites and search engines must remove all links to the foreign site
2) US advertising services must no longer serve ads linking to the site, or display ads on the foreign site
3) US payment networks must cease all transactions between the foreign site and US customers
4) US service providers to block access to the foreign site via DNS blacklisting

In other words, a rights holder would be able to accuse a websiteanywhere in the world of facilitating piracy simply because a user posted a comment linking to a file sharing site, and the site would completely vanish from the internet. Anyone using any US-based search engine (which includes pretty much everyone in the UK) would not be able to find it, and anyone in the US would discover that typing in its URL would lead to nowhere.

It’s a breathtaking grab for power and control, one that seeks to use the very same powers and technologies that repressive governments in the Middle East and China use to stamp out free speech – except here, it’s purely for the interests of rights holders. Talk about destroying the village in order to save it. And since the UK often blindly follows the US in these matters thanks to global media companies and star-struck politicians, we need to keep a very close eye on it.

What makes this entire affair so tragic is that SOPA and PIPA wouldn’t even dent piracy; encrypted torrents, VPNs, anonymous proxies, use of foreign DNS servers and the TOR network: all of these technologies are trivial for pirates to use, and extremely difficult for authorities to track.

Piracy is not going to be solved by the heavy hand of the law. As far as businesses should be concerned, it can only ultimately be “solved” by new business models, just as radios, record players, tape recorders, and video recorders all required media companies to figure out new ways of making money. We are not about to jump in a time machine to return to the 60s and give up the internet just because some companies can’t compete.

While SOPA has been shelved for the moment thanks to a popular outcry, some speculate that this was merely a planned retreat and that its predatory spirit will live on in Pipa or other acts. As a result, major websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, have decided to continue with their blackouts today in an effort to highlight the issue and rally support against the acts. With luck, the authors of SOPA and PIPA may discover that they have stumbled across the one issue that unites internet users of every kind and persuasion.