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The SOPA Protests: What Next?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

After the site blackout, what can non-US citizens do to protest a law which would damage the World’s Intenret, asks Peter Judge

Yesterday, Wikipedia and serveral other sites blacked themselves out in protest at the United States’ proposed Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). Readers of TechWeekEurope supported the protest, but what are the real dangers now, and what should be done next about it?

SOPA (along with its relative PIPA, which is going through the US Senate) has been dissected expertly in several places, and the objections come down to the fact that they would allow US copyright holders to demand the removal of any link to – or even mention of – a site which the claim to be violating their copyright.

Technically, this blocking would be carried out through the Domain Name System, and would effectively “break” the Internet. And politically, it breaks free speech in ways which are still becoming clear.

Consider Greenpeace, which often draws attention to corporate misbehaviour through parodies of company adverts or logos. In the past those companies have alleged in court that those parodies are breaches of copyright. Those attempts have failed – but SOPA acts on allegations, and is vaguely worded enough to allow corporations to block protesters using these means.

A clear majority from our readers

In a poll carried out yesterday, a clear majority (nearly half, at the current count) of TechWeekEurope readers thought yesterday’s blackout was an important protest against what we (possibly slanting the result) labelled “tyranny”. A further quarter of readers said the protest was a good idea, but should go further.

Amongst those who thought the gesture was futile (13 percent) it isn’t clear how many believed the goal to be wrong. Nearly twelve percent said they didn’t understand the protest, in which case we suggest they head off to some of the links earlier in this story.

SOPA was born from the hostility between Hollywood’s media moguls and the Internet – and even though it seemed to have been stopped in Congress it was always expected to return. Today, it has emerged that the bill is back on the books of Congress for markup in February.

How can you oppose SOPA from here?

While major opposition continues, there is a problem. This is a US bill, and the only place where it can be changed or defeated is in the US political system.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee suggests that anyone in the US should “go and call somebody or send an email”, but in fact the situation is tougher. As my colleague Wayne Rash of eWEEK points out, Congress still runs on conventional mail. His advice on how to stop SOPA consists of a detailed description for online people, of how to send a real letter to your political representative, in such a way that it will get noticed.

TechWeekEurope contacted both the UK Foreign Office and the Department for Culture Media and Sport, to ask if the UK government has any plans to object to legislation passed in the US which will have an effect on UK citizens. We were told by both departments that the UK does not interfere with legislation made by other countries.

This leaves those outside the US feeling powerless, as if dealing with a new Internet dictatorship. It is not yet clear how to take international protests beyond site black-outs, but it is clear that something is needed.