Remember SOPA? It's back. Here's what you need to know about a new government proposal that borrows from the restrictive internet legislation, and why you should be concerned.
The 2011 intellectual property legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was intended to combat the illegal buying, selling, and streaming of copyrighted material, but it had darker implications. SOPA granted the government wide leeway in taking down websites, and even entire domains, that contained even one user-submitted piece of copyrighted content. It also allowed the tracking of users' activities. Opponents argued that SOPA limited freedom of speech and expression, and constrained digital innovation, communication, creativity, and security. SOPA's sister bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, specifically targeted offshore sites, and proposed blocking them via location tracking.
In the face of the threats posed by SOPA and PIPA, the internet rioted. Stunningly muscular digital and physical protests in January, 2012, including blackouts from the likes of Wikipedia and Reddit, were able to put the proposed legislation on hold.
But the Obama administration is now reviving part of SOPA, through the Department of Commerce's Internet Policy Task Force, which is led by Penny Pritzker. In a July green paper called "Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy" (CPCIDE? CoPo? my, how the administration has learned about the danger of catchy acronyms, and the benefits of positive connotations), the task force recommends that the streaming and sharing of copyrighted content should be tried as a felony.
As such, sharing a video of a friend singing "Happy Birthday" — or nearly any other widely-known tune — could be considered a felony, because the song is copyrighted.
Here are five videos that could become illegal to watch and share if the paper's advice is adopted. This SOPA-esque policy recommendation has largely flown under the radar. Let's make sure it doesn't stay that way.
1. Birdy's "Skinny Love," and Other Cover Songs
If the task force's policies are adopted, streaming covers of songs, like Birdy's impossibly soulful "Skinny Love," JoJo's stellar cover of "Marvin's Room," and Solange's "Stillness is the Move," could be illegal. Imitation won't just be a sincere form of flattery, but an easy way to land in jail. The task force's number-one recommendation is that Congress, "enact legislation adopting the same range of penalties for criminal streaming of copyrighted works to the public as now exists for criminal reproduction and distribution."
Internet and digital innovation depend on the accessibility of content, and the ability to riff on an idea. Criminalizing remaking, remixing, and sharing rejects the very nature of digital culture. It also threatens the ability of artists to express themselves, and communicate using shared cultural landmarks.
2. B.Traits' BBC Radio 1 Show, and Other Radio Streams
The music industry was hit hard and deeply changed by the digital revolution. Streaming is essential to the way we now experience, create, and share music.
This video is for "Fever," a song by B.Traits, a Canadian DJ. She has lately been spinning for the BBC's Radio 1, and anyone can stream her shows, which are really neat. The Internet Policy Task Force's proposals threaten the ability to stream radio broadcasts, and, by proxy, the ability of traditional radio DJs to promote their work, as well as DJs who promote their mixes through sites like SoundCloud.
These regulations are being presented under the guise of protecting the economy, although the paper admits that, "the extent of the losses caused by online infringement is hard to calculate with certainty." As consumers, we ought to consider why this legislation is being proposed, and who it ultimately benefits.
3. Tweet and Retweet This 'Saturday Night Live' Video, Then Post Bail
Thinking about tweeting a totally legal (and totally copyrighted) parody of Sarah Palin from Saturday Night Live? Think again.
That simple act could be considered unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material. A major issue with the proposed policy is that it not only limits our ability to stream copyrighted material, but also criminalizes the act of sharing. As such, it would seriously cripple the social aspect of our digital experience, as well as the internet's catalytic capacity for change.
The ability of a video or other piece of content to go viral is critical to internet communication, and would be undermined by these proposals. Like PIPA before it, the proposal would restrict offshore data. In the process of addressing illegal file-sharing, the proposed changes could easily impinge on legitimate international sites. What if the entire Daily Mail site had been blacked out before it had the chance to break the Edward Snowden story, because of copyright infringement in the entertainment section?
4. Coverage of the Syria Crisis, and Other Important News
The Department of Commerce's proposal could even prevent sharing videos of important news events, because they are copyrighted material. Improperly viewing or sharing this video of CBS reporters talking about Syrian rebels could potentially lead to a felony, for instance.
If you rely on online media for your news, the proposal could handicap your ability to keep up with world events, and to act as a watchdog and check on government power.
5. This King Curtis Video, Fan Responses to It, and Memes in General
On a slightly less important note: could memes even happen if these proposals were enacted as legislation?
Internet humor and culture relies on the streaming, sharing, modification, and repurposing of copyrighted information. Where do .gifs fit into the task force proposal? Video parodies? Image reproductions? What happens to Buzzfeed, Facebook, and Tumblr?