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Net founders oppose piracy laws December 15, 2011

Film studios are stepping up efforts to combat piracy

The founders of Google, Twitter and eBay have signed a strongly worded letter criticising controversial US legislation ahead of a debate in Congress.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) aims to slash the amount of pirated content on the internet.

But signatories including Google co-founder Sergey Brin claim it amounts to China-style censorship.

The bill has the backing of Hollywood and the music industry.

Blocking access

Sopa was introduced by Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, who said the legislation was designed to “stop the flow of revenue to rogue websites… that profit from selling pirated goods without any legal consequences”.

It would give content owners and the US government the power to request court orders to shut down websites associated with piracy.

Sopa aims to stop online ad networks and payment processors from doing business with foreign websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement.

It could stop search engines from linking to the allegedly infringing sites. Domain name registrars could be forced to take down the websites, and internet service providers could be forced to block access to the sites accused of infringing.

A similar law, the Protect IP Act, is making its way through the US Senate.

Critics argue that the proposals are too broad and could lead to the closure of a range of sites.

‘Due process’

The latest letter, published in several US newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the New York Times, reads: “We’ve all had the good fortune to found internet companies and non-profits in a regulatory climate that promotes entrepreneurship, innovation, the creation of content and free expression online.

“However we’re worried that the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act – which started out as well-meaning efforts to control piracy online – will undermine that framework.”

The letter said that the legislation would require web services to monitor what users link to or upload.

The bill would also “deny website owners the right to due process” and “give the US government the power to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran”, the letter goes on.

“We urge Congress to think hard before changing the regulation that underpins the internet… Let’s not deny the next generation of entrepreneurs and founders the same opportunities that we all had.”

The letter was signed by Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams; Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake; Yahoo! co-founders David Filo and Jerry Yang; LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley; PayPal co-founder Elon Musk; Craigslist founder Craig Newmark; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Another appeal, signed by 83 key internet engineers including father of the internet Vint Cerf, has also been sent to Congress.

“We cannot have a free and open internet unless its naming and routing systems sit above the political concerns and objectives of any one government or industry,” it reads.

“Censorship of internet infrastructure will inevitably cause network errors and security problems. This is true in China, Iran and other countries that censor the network today; it will be just as true of American censorship.”

UK copyright

A group of US politicians is proposing an alternative to Sopa that would see funding cut off to foreign websites accused of copyright infringements in a similar way to how the US ended Wikileaks’ commercial operation.

They argue that the International Trade Commission (ITC) should take charge of combating piracy, instead of judges. The ITC would be tasked with reviewing claims of online infringement against foreign website owners, ordering them cut off from funding if the claims prove true.

While the US moves to tighten its copyright laws, the UK is aiming to relax its own.

The Intellectual Property Office has launched a consultation exercise intended, among other things, to allow the ripping of CDs to digital music players.

It follows recommendations from Professor Ian Hargreaves in his review of intellectual property.

Other plans include allowing data mining of scientific research for non-commercial use and a licensing scheme to make it easier for digital services to gain access to copyrighted works. It also proposes relaxing copyright rules around “parody” videos which are increasingly popular on YouTube.

The move was welcomed by the British Library and watchdog Consumer Focus, but The Publishers’ Association said it was concerned that the relaxation could make intellectual property theft easier.

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Stop Sopa now | Dan Gillmor November 17, 2011

America is fond of chiding other nations about freedom of speech in the internet age. Leaders including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are constantly reminding their global counterparts, especially in places like China, that internet censorship is a detriment to open government and honest self-rule. Yet, the Obama administration has used tactics that smell of censorship, and Congress is making common cause with a corporate cartel that wants to turn the internet into little more than an enhanced form of cable television. In the name of protecting copyright holders, they would censor the internet and force entrepreneurs to get permission to innovate.

Hollywood and the music industry lead the copyright cartel. They have been at war with the internet – and all technology they can’t control – since they realised that digital technology was creating huge challenges to their way of doing business. They have allies, to varying degrees, in other industries that include book publishing, software and pharmaceuticals, all of which are seeing their markets change and, in some cases, erode.

They’d already persuaded the US Congress to enact copyright laws that are grossly unbalanced on the side of the copyright holders and against the rights of users. Now, they’re back at the trough, and this time, they want to eliminate one of the few provisions that has any balance whatever: the so-called “safe harbor” giving immunity to websites that host other people’s postings. (The people doing the posting have no immunity.) When notified of a violation, sites must take down that material until and unless the original poster challenges that takedown.

Without safe harbor and several related provisions, much of the internet as we know it could not exist, because forcing websites to pre-screen everything that comes from users is untenable. And that is one reason why the copyright cartel’s friends and puppets in Congress have introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), a bill designed, among other things, as an end run around safe harbor.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Sopa (pdf). It’s a sham, of course: a stacked-deck collection of proponents with little time granted to people who want to keep the internet open and free for innovation. But Sopa and a companion bill in the Senate are being fast-tracked by politicians who either don’t realise what they are doing or don’t care about the damage they would cause to speech and innovation.

What Sopa’s proponents say is simple: online infringement is so bad and so prevalent that extraordinary measures are now needed to slow it down. They say they only want to go after the most egregious violators of copyright. A movie industry association blogger wrote that it would “target foreign rogue sites that knowingly and deliberately engage in the illegal distribution of stolen content, including movies and television shows, for profit”.

This is a partial truth, concealing a huge lie. The legislation is vaguely written and over-broad – no doubt, deliberately – and it would give copyright holders weapons that would go far, far beyond the “foreign rogue sites” the industry claims are the target. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has ably explained much of the damage this bill could cause, but here are a few especially bad provisions.

For example, copyright holders could invite payment systems such as PayPal, Visa and Mastercard to cut off services to allegedly infringing operations – and the payment systems would be granted immunity from lawsuits, giving them an incentive to do Hollywood’s bidding with little recourse for the affected sites.

The bill would also enshrine the already dubious practice of ordering internet domain-name service providers (DNS) to essentially blacklist web addresses. So if you typed “atargetedsitename.com” into your browser, you would not be taken there, even if the site existed. This breaks a fundamental feature of the internet, and is slated to get worse.

It also could force software developers to put censorship tools into their products or face lawsuits or worse. Current copyright law – remember, it’s already balanced on the holders’ side – has been used to chill activities of people, including software developers and researchers, who were, by no stretch, engaged in infringement.

The damage Sopa would cause to existing services is bad enough. But the longer-range damage is literally incalculable, because the legislation is aimed at preventing innovation – and speech – that the cartel can’t control. If this law had been passed years ago, YouTube could not exist today in anything remotely like the form it has taken. The cost of serving Hollywood’s interest would have been too high, but the reality is that investors would have never gone near the project. They would have been persuaded that the risks were too high.

In recent days, the technology industry has become more outspoken about the danger (pdf), and public interest organisations are shouting their alarm (pdf). But the opposition has been late to recognise the threat, and is outmatched by the lobbying clout of Hollywood and the cartel overall.

Meanwhile, the major media have been essentially silent on the issue. I’m not surprised. Big Media is an ally and member of the copyright cartel – and there may be more than a few people in traditional news organisations who fear the internet more than they worry about stifling speech.

The anger over this legislation is mounting, thanks to grassroots opposition. Congressman Ron Paul, currently a Republican presidential candidate, is one of a growing number of representatives to oppose it. It may not be too late to stop the Great American Firewall.

Today, Wednesday, has been proclaimed “Web Censorship Day” by a coalition of people and organisations involved in this fight. They’re putting banners and popups on websites to demonstrate the danger of Sopa. Listen to what they are saying; this is your internet, not Hollywood’s, but it is in clear danger.

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Sopa condemned by web giants as ‘internet blacklist bill’ November 16, 2011

Internet giants went on the attack on Wednesday, claiming legislation aimed at tackling online piracy would create an “internet blacklist bill” that would encourage censorship, kill jobs and give US authorities unrivalled powers over the world’s websites.

Internet firms including Wikipedia owner Wikimedia, eBay, Google, Twitter and others protested as Congress discussed the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) now passing through Washington.

The act aims to tackle online piracy by giving the US Justice Department new powers to go after websites, both domestically and abroad, that host disputed copyright material. The act would allow the US to effectively pull the plug on websites and go after companies that support them technically or through payment systems. A vote on the bill could come as early as next month.

Maria Pallante, register of copyrights, told the committee: “As we all know, the internet harbours a category of bad faith actors whose very business models consist of infringing copyright in American books, software, movies, and music with impunity.”

She said these “rogue” sites were the “dark side of the internet”, and that while American authors, publishers, and producers had been asked to invest in online commerce, “in critical circumstances we have left them to compete with thieves.”

Sopa would redress the balance she claimed by “ensuring that our law keeps pace with infringers.”

She said the act would requires “all key members of the online ecosystem, including service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertising networks, to play a role in protecting copyright interests”.

Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, dismissed as “hyperbolic” charges the bill “will open the floodgates to government censorship.” He said the comments belittled “the circumstances under which true victims of tyrannical governments actually live.”

The act has powerful support from the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and drug companies keen for a crack down on online pharmacies undercutting US sales.

But it has met with almost universal criticism from the tech community. Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, blacked out its name on its home page in an anti-Sopa protest, as did Reddit, the social news site. Tumblr launched a page attacking the act, and firms including AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Zynga criticised Sopa in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.

“We support the bills’ stated goals – providing additional enforcement tools to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement or counterfeiting. Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding US internet and technology companies to new and uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites,” the firms wrote.

“We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cyber-security.”

In a blogpost, Google said: “We strongly support the goal of the bill – cracking down on offshore websites that profit from pirated and counterfeited goods – but we’re concerned the way it’s currently written would threaten innovation, jobs, and free expression.”

Art Bordsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, a Washington-based public policy group, said Sopa was “the proverbial bull in the proverbial china shop” and that the bill as it stands would have “terrible consequences” for the internet.

“The international aspects alone are very worrying,” he said. “It appears that the US is taking control of the entire world. The definitions written in the bill are so broad that any US consumer who uses a website overseas immediately gives the US jurisdiction the power to potentially take action against it.”

At present, if Facebook, You Tube or other leading websites are found to be holding copyright material without permission, then they are told to take it down. Sopa would make it possible for the US to block the website. Such far-reaching powers could kill smaller firms and put off investors from financing new companies, said Holmes Wilson, co-founder of Fight For The Future, a lobbying group.

“Everybody uses the internet every day, these days. Everyone realises how important freedom is online. This isn’t just for geeks any more,” he said.

“The worst part of this bill is that the vast majority of the damage will be invisible – it will be all the companies that never start because this bill has effectively killed them.”

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Net giants fight US piracy bill

Google chairman Eric Schmidt said SOPA amounted to “censorship”.

Web firms including Google and Facebook have written to the US government in opposition to a proposed bill to combat piracy.

Alongside AOL, Twitter and eBay they claim that the Stop Online Piracy Act poses huge risks to the internet.

SOPA, supported by the music and film industries, aims to give new powers to content providers to help them take offending sites offline.

The US House of Representatives is due to debate the bill on 16 November.

The law would allow content owners to seek court orders to force internet service providers, search engines, payment processors and ad networks to block or cease business with websites linked to online piracy.

Content industries around the world are looking for new ways to combat the growing problem of piracy.

Serious risk

In the US, critics warn that SOPA is unnecessarily draconian.

“Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding US internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of websites,” Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay wrote in a letter to leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committee.

“We are concerned that these measures pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation’s cybersecurity,” the companies said. The letter was also signed by AOL, Twitter, LinkedIn, Mozilla and Zynga.

Speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management this week, Google chairman Eric Schmidt voiced his own opposition to SOPA.

“The solutions are draconian. There’s a bill that would require ISPs to remove URLs from the web which is also known as censorship last time I checked,” he said.

In the UK the Motion Picture Association recently won a court order against BT forcing the ISP to block access to Newzbin 2, a members-only site which aggregates links to illegal content. It is now seeking to extend the block to other ISPs.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt is considering whether to introduce even stricter measures in the upcoming Communications Act which, like SOPA, would target search engines, payment processors and advertising firms.

Rogue websites

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America and the US Chamber of Commerce are among the supporters of the legislation.

MPPA said that SOPA would allow the US Department of Justice “more effective tools to protect American intellectual property, including the films, television shows and sound recordings created by our members”.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who introduced the bill, said the legislation is designed to “stop the flow of revenue to rogue websites… that profit from selling pirated goods without any legal consequences”.

But the legislation’s “vague language” could have a knock-on effect to websites that allow users to share videos and post blogs, according to the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

It could mean legitimate sites are also blocked, it said.

Golden goose

Critics of SOPA have joined together to create a Censorship US day to coincide with the bill’s debate.

On the Censorship US Day website, critics argue that the bill gives the content industries too much power over both the structure and content of the internet.

They are also highly critical of SOPA’s counterpart – the Protect IP bill – which is currently being considered by the US Senate.

The bill aims to block sites linking to illegal content by having their domain names delisted from the internet’s address books.

The bill also contains clauses that would force search engines to stop listing infringing sites in their indexes.

“These bills were written by the content industry without any input from the technology industry. And they are trying to fast track them through congress and into law without any negotiation with the technology industry.” Said Fred Wilson of venture capitalist firm Union Square Ventures.

“The tech industry, led by startups, have created all the net new jobs in the past five years. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and startups like Dropbox, Kickstarter, and Twilio are the leading exporters and job creators of this time. They are the golden goose of the economy and we cannot kill the golden goose to protect industries in decline,” he added.

James Allworth, a fellow at Harvard Business School, said SOPA could stifle innovation.

“It contains provisions that will chill innovation. It contains provisions that will tinker with the fundamental fabric of the internet. It gives private corporations the power to censor. And best of all, it bypasses due legal process to do much of it,” he said.

Coinciding with the debate about SOPA, a new survey looking at US attitudes to online copyright infringement suggests that, while piracy is widespread, most Americans are not hardcore pirates.

The report suggested that 70% of all 18-29-year-olds have pirated music, TV shows or movies. But it said that two-thirds of this subset also acquire content legally.

The research, conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates, was sponsored by thinktank The American Assembly and part-funded by Google.

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Increasing pressure on Google to give user information October 27, 2011

According to a statistical snapshot, released by Google Inc on Tuesday the Internet search leader is dealing with increasing government demands to provide information about its users. Google has decided to start disclosing summaries of government requests after last year’s confrontation with China’s government over online censorship. However, the latest report reveals that the highest number of government requests is coming from the US.

The fact that Google is experiencing growing pressure from governments can’t surprise anyone. The most popular search engine, Google processes about two of every three online searches in the US while in Europe this share is even larger. Another point is that Google owns and operates some of the most popular services on the Internet, including the increasingly popular communication service Gmail and the video service YouTube, which. Undoubtedly, is one of the most popular websites in the whole of Internet. And the new social networking service called Plus, which has already attracted more than 40 million users since its launch in June and has become a serious competitor of Facebook, also shouldn’t be ignored. All of the listed services allow Google to gather large amounts of personal data about its users, including information about people’s political and social ideals. This ability turns Google into an extremely valuable source of information for law enforcement institutions fighting crime and terrorism.

At the same time, the information obtained by Google is a true treasure trove for any government eager to know what its citizens think. And such services as YouTube, which allow users to upload their own video content, naturally turn out to be potential targets of government censorship.

Despite the Chinese censorship scandal, Beijing is not the only government widely practicing censorship. Following its recent summary, in the previous six months there were a number of European countries demanding some unprecedented censorship measures from Google. For instance, the British government asked Google to remove 220 videos from YouTube because of the “national security” reasons during the first six months of this year. This number compared to 40 videos asked to be blocked during the previous six months demonstrates a sharp spike.

The fact that the highest number of government demands for user data is coming from the US is hardly a surprise. As history reveals, the American authorities have always been extremely interested in the beliefs of their citizens and now, with the outstanding possibilities granted by Internet, the US government is not going to miss this chance. According to the latest summary, US authorities made 5,950 requests during the last six months which is a 29 percent increase from the previous number. And now when the mass protests across America are reaching the critical point this number is only going to rapidly escalate. As the examples of the “Arab Spring” and the London riots demonstrate, social network websites and video hosting platforms are becoming a universal instrument allowing to manipulate people. And considering that the development of the situation in America will definitely lead to the raise of public discontent, the authorities are extremely interesting in maintaining control over the said resources.

The decision of the company to disclose the summary of government requests looks like a serious step towards transparency. However, Google itself has often found itself in the crossfire of criticism. While acting according to its stated mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” Google has been accused by numerous critics of unlawful or unethical means to accomplish this mission.

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