Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Wikiprotest and Heritage Blogging

There is some legislation being proposed by the U.S. Congress — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate which some claim would, if passed, "harm the free and open Internet". The Wikipedia community blacked out the English version of Wikipedia for 24 hours on January 18th - from midnight to midnight EST (05:00 UTC Wed to 05:00 UTC Thu) in order to raise awareness about this proposed legislation and to encourage their millions of readers to speak out against it.

Wikipedia reveals the ideology behind this action. Its editors claim that "although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence actually is not". (I am not sure that is actually true that Wikipedia is neutral - look at the coverage of metal-detecting related issues for example for a blatant example where they are NOT, what those articles reflect are the views of those willing and with the stamina to shout loudest longest.) Wikipedia explains:
Wikipedia's existence depends on a free, open and uncensored Internet. We are shutting Wikipedia down for you, our readers. We support your right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We think everyone should have access to educational material on a wide range of subjects, even if they can’t pay for it. We believe people should be able to share information without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA and PIPA (and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States) don’t advance the interests of the general public. That's why we're doing this.
According to Wikipedia:
Among other serious problems in the current draft of the bills, the requirement exists for US-based sites to actively police links to purported infringing sites. These kinds of self-policing activities are non-sustainable for large, global sites - including ones like Wikipedia. The legislative language is ambiguous and overly broad, even though it touches on protected speech. Congress says it's trying to protect the rights of copyright owners, but the "cure" that SOPA and PIPA represent is worse than the disease. [...] SOPA and PIPA put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won't have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn't being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines. SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression. [...] the bill would give the U.S. government extraordinary and loosely-defined powers to take control over content and information on the free web.
Leaving aside the emotive "government microchip in my head controlling my thoughts" overtones, it is worth noting that in UK law internet resource providers already have much more responsibility for content than over in the UK. Surely the provider of a facility has some responsibility to make sure that they are not instrumental in immoral or illegal activity, it's like ebay claiming they have absolutely "no responsibility" for the sale of illicit or fake antiquities there. I think some of us would disagree.

My own personal interest in this is the way its opponents this system could lead to abuse of another kind. Readers may remember a scheme by moral midgets with metal detectors in the UK last year to attempt to close down this blog (just as much "free speech" as anything they write) by abuse of Google's existing policies. They reckoned that if enough of them spam-bombed Google with claims (necessarily false) of "copyright infringement" by the author discussing what they do by quoting actual examples, that Google would react by closing my blogging account rather than spending corporate time dealing with the complaints, still less actually investigating whether fair use was applicable in each of the claimed cases. As we know, the use of time-wasting tactics is a ploy frequently used by UK "metal detectorists" to avoid scrutiny of the issues surrounding their hobby, they managed to close down the PAS forum through such means a few years ago. Clearly therefore if metal detectors can hit upon such an idea, other groups too can use this type of tactic to block free exchange of information, opinions, ideas, criticism - especially if the laws currently being proposed by the US are instituted. There are potentially issues far more important than whether metal detecting is good for the world or not at stake here.

UPDATE 19.1.2012
Well, that was a bit of a fiasco. Indeed I found myself trying to access Wikipedia a surprising number of times yesterday, but in fact encountered no great problems in doing so. I tend to access Wikipedia in several languages anyway, and all you had to do to see the English ones was to use Google cache. So I am not sure how well others felt Wikipedia got the fundamental message across. There is an entertaining video explaining the issues (note the buried bones) here.

I thought one of yesterday's Guardian articles was a laugh. [It used to be one of my teenage dreams to own a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica and I was envious of my brother in law that he got one twenty years ago - no mean feat in Poland back then. Now a wry smile replaces the look of envy when I see the bookcase filled with unused but expensive volumes when I go to visit.]
Guardipedia – we answer your questions during Wikipedia blackout
Suffering from Wikipedia withdrawal? Patrick Kingsley and a stack of volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Who's Who tried to answer your questions.

Certainly though this is one way to get increased awareness about a problem with what for some may seem like an obscure legal point or two in US law. Now, how to achieve the same effect with heritage legislation?

1 comment:

Damien Huffer said...

I was very impressed to see how easily many of the sponsers and supporters of SOPA/PIPA caved on this issue when Wikipedia and numerous other "key" websites blacked out or added to the protest. Partly due to the upcoming elections I'm sure, but the speed of positive response was amazing. Yes, such a development for heritage law/education would be most welcome. Bloggers united...

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