November 2, 2011 | By Trevor Timm

Proposed Copyright Bill Threatens Whistleblowing and Human Rights

In the past week, the larger Internet community has joined EFF in sounding the alarm about the new copyright bill, now known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), as it makes its way through the U.S. House. The bill threatens to transform copyright law, pushing Internet intermediaries—from Facebook to your ISP—to censor whole swaths of the Internet. SOPA could forever alter social networks, stifle innovation and creativity, and destroy jobs, which is why Rep. Zoe Lofgren wasn’t exaggerating when she said SOPA “would mean the end of the Internet as we know it."

But this bill could also have a huge impact on the work of human rights advocates and whistleblowers who depend on online tools to protect their anonymity and speak out against injustice. Platforms created to provide anonymity software to human rights activists across the world, as well as next generation WikiLeaks-style whistleblower sites, could be major casualties of this bill—all in the name of increasing Hollywood’s bottom line.

Under SOPA, private companies will be able to force payment processors to shut down payments to websites by merely claiming the site “engages in, enables or facilitates” infringement.  This broad provision could target websites behind important Internet projects such as Tor, the anonymity network that has been vital for protecting activists from government surveillance in Tunisia and Egypt. While Tor is designed to promote free expression, privacy, and human rights (and has had an amazing impact on the Arab Spring), it can unfortunately also be used to mask one’s IP address when downloading copyrighted content, such as music. Corporations concerned about users illegally downloading music could use SOPA to force Visa and Mastercard to cut off donations to Torproject.org—despite Tor’s aim to facilitate human rights activism, not piracy.

Political and human rights video hosting sites like EngageMedia, which is committed to raising awareness about social justice and the environment in the Asian Pacific region, might also be under threat. If a single video on the site arguably contains infringing content (keep in mind that only a portion of a site has to be engaging in infringement), an IP rightsholder could reach out to Paypal and demand it shut down EngageMedia’s account.

We’ve seen the effect of this kind of action before, in the recent attack on WikiLeaks. In December, WikiLeaks started publishing its cache of leaked State Department cables, which also exposed many human rights violations. The First Amendment barred the government from censoring WikiLeaks directly, but that didn’t stop Senator Joe Lieberman from pressuring private companies to stop doing business with WikiLeaks. The media organization lost its domain name and servers. Then Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal stopped processing their donations—cutting off 97% of the global payment processing market for Wikileaks. As Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler put it, “This…allowed [the government] to obtain results (for the state) that the state is prohibited by law from pursuing directly.”

Last week, WikiLeaks announced that it would have to temporarily suspend its publishing operations because of this private-sector censorship, despite the fact that the organization has not been convicted, or even formally accused of, any crime. A similar fate awaits the next WikiLeaks if SOPA passes—even if the government never gets involved or has a legal leg to stand on.

Emerging nonprofit whistleblower sites could find themselves in the jaws of SOPA if they post any documents related to corporate corruption or law breaking, if those documents contain trade secrets or are copyrightable. In 2010, Microsoft unsuccessfully tried to knock the whistleblower website Cryptome offline in a comparable situation. Now, the offended corporation may simply send a notice to the payment processor alleging the posted documents violate their rights and the processors will have five days to cut off the whistleblowing site’s service. Those sites could be starved out of existence before they can ever gain traction to defend themselves. Potential whistleblowers wishing to prevent the next Enron could be shut out of the Internet, even though the Enron whistleblower herself has said how important sites like WikiLeaks can be for exposing corporate wrongdoing. 

It’s unclear whether SOPA’s authors intended it to cover these websites that are vital to whistleblowing and human rights.  If they didn’t, they need to press re-set; and next time, consult with the numerous Internet communities the bill could affect, rather than exclusively Hollywood lobbyists. But the immediate need is clear: the bill must be killed.  If you care about free speech and a free Internet, act now!


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