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White House forces SOPA rethink, though campaign against web-block laws continues

By | Published on Tuesday 17 January 2012


The American music and movie industries’ efforts to get some sort of web blocking measures introduced into US copyright law have hit something of a roadblock, though it may just be a temporary setback, so those who oppose such new rules plan to continue the fight, and a Wikipedia black out.

As previously reported, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act being considered by US Congress has become big news in the States in recent months, with opponents to the proposals, backed by many of America’s big tech firms, gaining the upper hand in the public debate on the issue.

Unlike in the UK, where controversy outside parliament over the three-strikes-enabling Digital Economy Act never really resulted in widespread opposition in political circles, in the US some vocal congressmen have been taking note of discontent outside Capitol Hill. Though it was opposition to key SOPA proposals in the White House, confirmed late last week, that really scuppered efforts to make the anti-piracy legislation law in the short term.

Confirmation that the White House would block certain SOPA measures brought Rupert Murdoch into the debate via his new favourite medium Twitter. The News Corp chief accused President Obama of being in bed with his “Silicon Valley paymasters”, by which he really means Google.

The web giant, Murdoch continued to tweet, is a “piracy leader”, helping with the free unlicensed streaming of News Corp’s movies and selling ads around them. Needless to say, that’s a viewpoint Google disputes, telling C-Net: “This is just nonsense. Last year we took down five million infringing web pages from our search results and invested more than $60 million in the fight against bad ads… We fight pirates and counterfeiters every day”.

For its part, the Obama administration insisted that, despite opposing elements of SOPA, it remains committed to helping the entertainment industry protect their intellectual property rights online, just not in the ways the Stop Online Piracy Act proposed. The White House said in a statement: “Let us be clear, online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. [But we] will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet”.

SOPA aimed to make it easier for content owners to force ISPs to block access to non-US based websites which they believe primarily exist to help others to infringe copyrights. Similar measures are being considered in other countries, sometimes alongside though often instead of three-strikes style anti-piracy programmes, which force ISPs to send warning letters to suspected file-sharers.

Spain is probably most advanced in introducing a fast-track web-blocking system – which removes some of the time and cost involved in seeking web blocking injunctions through traditional routes (not that any such traditional routes really existed under Spanish law) – ironically after ministers there responded to pressure to act on piracy from representatives of the American government.

Opponents of web blocking argue it gives too much power to traditional content companies to censor the internet, fearing any high speed system for blocking access to websites would be misused.

Although last week’s White House announcement is certainly a big set back for those who support SOPA, requiring, as it does, a radical rethink, it hasn’t necessarily killed off the legislation. Plus, concurrently to SOPA, another set of anti-piracy proposals called PIPA are also being considered by US politicians.

All of which means those who oppose web blocking hope to maintain the momentum of their campaign, with Wikipedia planning to take its English language service offline for 24 hours in protest. As previously reported, Wiki chief Jimmy Wales proposed such action last month, taking a similar campaign against new web legislation by the Wiki community in Italy as inspiration.

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