SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and the battle for freedom on the internet

3 Jan 2013

At the beginning of 2012, there was an online blackout as prominent sites protested what they believed to be unfair copyright legislation about to be enacted. This led to ongoing debate throughout the year and developments for which we are only beginning to see the full effect.

The day the internet went on strike

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were proposed in US Congress before this year, but the debate raged on this and other controversial copyright legislation in 2012. Though SOPA was killed by Virginia Republican representative Eric Cantor, PIPA remained a threat and, in protest, widely used sites Reddit, Wikipedia, Craigslist and BoingBoing went ‘on strike’ on 18 January. Even Google showed its support by blacking out its logo on US servers.

Both SOPA and PIPA were later postponed indefinitely, but attention then turned to Europe and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). At the same time that the EU was preparing to ratify ACTA, a statutory instrument to give courts the power to grant orders to ISPs and other entities suspected of infringing copyright was about to be unleashed in Ireland.

Wikipedia black-out

The homepage of the English version of Wikipedia on 18 January 2012

Anonymous hacktivists attacked government websites in Poland and Ireland, but this did not deter 22 EU member states from signing the treaty. In the controversy that followed, Kader Arif, the French MEP who led the investigation into ACTA, resigned in protest and called the treaty a charade. On 11 February, a day of action was declared against ACTA and a petition against the treaty garnered more than 300,000 signatures, while many took to the streets in protest.

SOPA Ireland

Meanwhile in Ireland, Minister Sean Sherlock, TD, put off signing Ireland’s SOPA-like statutory instrument until further debate on the topic. An online petition and social media activity tried to pressure the minister into changing his mind, and the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) came out against the instrument.

Anti-ACTA protesters in Dublin, photo by Dara Robinson

Anti-ACTA protesters in Dublin. Photo by Dara Robinson

At the Digital Rights Forum in April, Sherlock, Stop SOPA Ireland campaigner Simon McGarr, founder Tom Murphy and Paul Durrant of the ISPAI made speeches to the audience and the panel, moderated by editor John Kennedy, and a fierce debate followed. But Sherlock signed the statutory instrument despite the opposition.

The unexpected twist

However, in a twist at the end of the tale, Sherlock’s decision ended up putting Irish law out of step with the rest of the EU.

Though ACTA was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, the US, Mexico, and 22 EU member states, it has to be ratified by six countries before it comes into force, and even then it would only apply in those countries that have ratified it. So far, Japan is the only signatory to have ratified the treaty and, in May, EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes admitted that we are likely to be in a world without SOPA and ACTA owing to the reluctance of other signatories to follow suit. On 4 July, the European Parliament rejected the agreement, with 478 MEPs voting against the treaty, 39 in favour (165 abstained).

Before the close of 2012, Minister Sherlock’s contentious statutory instrument was invoked for the first time, and five Irish-based ISPs have been sued by the big four record labels: EMI, Sony, Warner and Universal. At a High Court sitting on 17 December, it was revealed that the plaintiffs could be seeking to block up to 260 websites which they find to be objectionable. The case will resume on 29 January, in what could be a landmark hearing in the battle for freedom on the internet.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.