SOPA, PIPA and ACTA: What are these arduous acronyms all about?

The news has been rife with mentions of these three acronyms over the past month or so but amidst all the confusion I have only managed to pick up on a few things.

Firstly, if you are a hard working student like me, you may have been shocked to discover that on Wednesday the 18th of January for 24 hours Wikipedia went down. Visitors to the site could only view a black page with a message encouraging them to “imagine a world without free knowledge.” Secondly, you may have also noticed the name Kim Dotcom appearing  alongside images of someone who looks and talks suspiciously like the fat German kid off the Simpsons and finally you may have realised  that any efforts to watch your favourite TV shows on Megavideo have been fruitless. All of these occurrences are related to what seems to be a worldwide crackdown on copyright infringement.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have both stemmed from discontented movie producers and multimedia companies who drove forward the internet censorship bills in an attempt to stop online piracy. However both bills failed to make it through the US legislative system and as of yet there is no new copyright laws to consider. We should be wary however as modified versions of the bills are likely to rise from the ashes and these may well lead to new legislation.

I know you are probably wondering why I’m rambling on about American copyright law, however I do have a point. If modified versions of these bills were to result in new copyright legislation it would mean some of our most frequently visited websites could potentially become our most heavily regulated.  Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, all of which fundamentally rely on user-generated content, would have to prevent publishers, basically YOU, from posting links to websites that may trespass on intellectual property.

Opponents, from hacking group Anonymous to high profile internet giants like Google, believe these bills would go against everything the internet stands for. A restriction on hyper-linking would be a restriction on the freedom and democracy of the internet.

At the moment we’re safe from the draconian measures proposed by SOPA and PIPA so we can now turn our attention to ACTA.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is an international treaty with the main aim of creating an international governing body to enforce rules on digital copyright infringement. So far ACTA has been approved by the European Commission but has not yet been approved by the European Parliament. Basically, the treaty is meaningless until then.

Although not yet approved by the European Parliament, many say ACTA is on its way to being passed. So far, the treaty has been signed by 22 out of the 27 European Union member states.

ACTA is concerned with counterfeit goods and this includes intellectual property theft. Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA could have serious consequences on our freedom to publish on the internet and could result in fines and more seriously, imprisonment for anyone deemed to be violating its rules.

Although there is intense opposition to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, it is undeniable that the recent uproar and controversy surrounding these proposed measures has also ironically emphasized the fact that there is a serious problem. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) believes that online piracy costs the film industry around $20.5bn a year, and Chris Dodd, the CEO has stated that “Intellectual property theft…is depriving creators and copyright owners of the return they deserve on their massive investments of creativity, expertise, and hard work.”

He obviously raises a very valid point, however any figures concerning estimated losses due to online piracy are dubious at best. For instance, if you download a film illegally (which I’m sure you wouldn’t) that you would never have paid for in the first place, how much are the losses to the film industry actually amounting to?

On top of all of this, amidst the maelstrom of ongoing worldwide debates about SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, you may have noticed that one of the biggest piracy, sorry – file sharing websites in the world, Megaupload, has been shut down by the FBI with claims that it has cost copyright holders $500m in lost revenue.

The man behind Megaupload, Kim Dotcom is now in prison charged with racketeering, money-laundering and crimes relating to copyright infringement. As a result Megaupload was seized by the FBI and as of January the 29th is no longer available.

I’m sure all of us are familiar with the phrase: “You have watched 72 minutes of video…” and therefore we all know how well Megavideo aids procrastination but the recent shutdown of the site is just a taste of how censorship resulting from online piracy legislation could affect us. There are of course an abundance of websites out there that we can use to watch TV online, but how long will they last? The internet needs protection from censorship, not even just legally questionable web sites such as Megavideo but our most frequented ones like Facebook and Wikipedia.

It looks like the debate surrounding online piracy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and even if estimated losses seem slightly inflated, It is ignorant to say there is no problem. A solution that suits both parties is very obviously required. It does seem apparent however that neither SOPA, PIPA or ACTA are what we need. We need legislation that will not impinge on the freedoms of the internet through censorship. For now anyway, it looks like the closure of Megavideo marks the start of a long heated battle to save the web.

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