The Problem with SOPA (and PIPA)

Borrowed from Dubai Session.I’m the first person to reject the English speaking = American conception of the world. On behalf of all Westernised Countries, no Internet, we do not have the same laws as them. This usually presents itself on an American site talking about foreign matters where, about four comments down, some bright spark chips in with an Amendment about something. Thanks, but no thanks.

This was the light colouring of my initial surprise that the English Language Wikipedia will blackout on Wednesday in protest at a pair of distracting acts currently circulating around the US legislature that potentially will increase censorship on the Internet, in particular the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’, or SOPA. Hey, I speak English, but I’m not American, and the people of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada among myriad others would also like to use Wikipedia. The main goals of the SOPA Act are to reduce the laughably tidal amounts of piracy online, and to protect American citizens seeking medications from counterfeit sites. One presumes that protections from counterfeit medicine would also apply in theory to counterfeit electronics and handbags, but that’s not such a noble undertaking. This would mean the Dept. of Justice in the US can demand that foreign websites which facilitate piracy GTFO and failing that, demand that American internet infrastructure providers (Search Engines, Internet Providers, Ad networks, payment processors and such) blacklist those sites. It protects these providers if the content is found connected to a particular person, and for that person increases the penalties that can be applied to guilty pirates.
So far, so what.
kim-jong-unConsidering the problems in the World at present (27 year olds in charge of nuclear weapons and whatnot) this does look like a good time to bury bad news, especially as the opposition to the bill gains momentum and stateside news outlets are getting in quite a puff about it. The bill is badly written, losing supporters, and has coloured the internet purple with rage that once the idea of censorship was connected to the bill, it was still being legitimately considered. So why should the rest of us, indeed the rest of the world, care even a smidge?

Oh wait, yes.
In the United Kingdom, as of 2003, we are subject to US laws too. Richard O’Dwyer is currently being extradited to the US (one appeal left) for being behind, a site that hosted links to pirated content available elsewhere on the net but not hosting, nor uploading any of it himself. This case would probably not come to criminal court in the UK, though rights providers could sue. His lawyer argues that he hasn’t done any thing worse than Google, Yahoo or Bing (though since Google changed its algorithms to ‘OUR SHIT FIRST’ it arguably doesn’t do it too well any more) and a thousand other more popular sites, but they’ve gone after him to make an ‘example’ of him. The United States (New York, specifically) has gone after a 23 year old man, mostly because he sold advertising to pay the server costs, and thus ‘profited’ from copyright infringement. So why haven’t they gone after any of the numerous sites who do the same?

One reason might be that unfortunately, somewhere along a distant British Prime Minister’s temporary mind-of-a-sock-puppet day an extradition treaty was agreed wherein for a Brit (or anyone else for that matter, I think) to be extradited to the US, US authorities had to provide suspicion of crime. To go the other way however, British authorities have to provide much more in the way of proof of wrong doing. What’s the point in extraditing someone to find them innocent?

Therein lies something of the problem with this treaty, in that it would seem that once the US Prosecutor is banging on your country’s door, your chances of a fair trial – innocent till proven guilty by a jury of your peers – may have taken a shin-kicking. Only one person has not been convicted after extradition, and he was not found innocent; his case did not even reach a trial, though he still spent six months in a US jail. From what I’ve seen from Louis Theroux documentaries six hours starts becoming heavy punishment, let alone six months.

What O’Dwyer did was not really illegal in the UK. Unethical perhaps, with weak points to be found and contrived by a snappy lawyer and axe grinding judge, but not illegal. He’s being extradited to a country where he has not set foot to commit a crime. Does this mean the United States is trying to claim the internet as it’s territory – a crime on it, no matter where you are, is a crime in the US? The Extradition Treaty of 2003 does specify that the US can extradite citizens for breaking its laws rather than ours, by people living and working here, never setting foot in the US. Subjecting your people to another country’s laws is one of the dumbest parts of this treaty – should we be subject to laws that make it illegal to be gay, or to go out without a male escort? Of course not – so is this really that different? Those are much more serious issues but to a 23 year old man, a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison looks pretty serious too. The problem with SOPA, and PIPA, is their irrelevance – there are clearly enough laws already to crack down on people who facilitate piracy.


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