Under proposed legislation from the US, content and copyright holders could restrict viewers' access to any website - whether hosted in the US or not - that they considered included infringing material.
The reasoning behind the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) is to help protect the internet.
However, ISPs and website providers, such as Wikipedia and Google, are fearful of the potentially wide-ranging consequences should the proposed bills become law.
The bills propose the following:
- those found guilty of streaming copyrighted content without permission 10 or more times within six months will face up to five years in jail
- court orders can be taken out against sites accused of 'enabling or facilitating piracy'
- bans on advertising on sites alleged to infringe copyright
- ban on sites containing information on how to access blocked sites
So who's opposing?
The debate surrounding the proposed bills essentially pits content providers such as the music and film industries (which have spent many years campaigning for stronger protection against online infringement) against those in the computer and technological industries, i.e. those who host websites and enable access to the content.
Reception to the bills has been extremely mixed, with even President Obama responding to calls to veto the proposed legislation, stating that although online piracy is a crucial issue that need tackling, the White House would 'not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet'.
Rupert Murdoch was one of the few voices speaking out on Twitter against the President's stance within moments of the White House statement, taking the opportunity to lambast Google whilst he was at it.
Google responded by denying that it enables copyright infringement, citing the significant sums it devotes to weeding out piracy and infringement.
The strong opposition to the bills has so far resulted in a back down from previous proposals, including a right for private parties to instigate take downs of offending sites, the creation of a power to force search engines to remove infringing sites from search indexes, and the right to force ISPs to block the domain name of an infringing site; effectively removing such sites from the internet.
Why the blackout?
Wikipedia is certainly piqued. The online encyclopaedia has launched a petition to 'help protect the internet', and announced its participation in a 24-hour blackout in protest. Google too is affronted, having adopted a firmly opposing stance.
Despite the changes already made to the bills, opponents still believe that they grant the US government and copyright holders far more power over the global internet than is either appropriate or enforceable.
Those devoted to an uncensored and unfettered internet are unlikely to be satisfied with the proposed legislation in anything like its current form.
Wikipedia's blackout of its English speaking encyclopaedia websites is in protest of its view that SOPA and PIPA will cause damage to the free and open nature of the internet. It has described the proposed legislation as enabling 'large commercial lobbyists to use repressive tools capable of destroying the very freedom and openness' that Wikipedia has been built on. Other participants in the blackout include Mozilla and WordPress.
So how will this affect us?
The reach of the US government when it comes to enforcing intellectual property rights has been the source of debate following a recent court decision allowing the extradition of Sheffield-based site owner Richard O'Dwyer for operating a webpage from which users could be directed to other sites containing pirated content.
Although the scope of SOPA will not be clear for some time it is a cause for concern to many businesses and organisations operating online (virtually everyone these days), as anyone advertising on a page that hosted infringing content could find themselves being caught out.
It is not just the US government that is looking to regulate the internet more closely; Spain is at the head of a number of European countries looking to implement legislation of their own.
The Spanish government has enacted a new law (popularly known as the Ley Sinde) which creates a government body to which infringing activities can be reported with a view to closing down offending sites in a matter of days.
It is clear that the internet is on the verge of becoming a battleground for a war to be waged between those who believe in the unfettered transfer of information, and those who wish to rely on governments to protect their intellectual property rights.
We cannot yet know who will win, but any organisation relying on its online presence should stay aware of the potential implications of any new developments.
We will keep you posted.