Go to Wikipedia today (Wednesday, January 18th) to search for information, and you will be met with a dark page bearing a stark warning: "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge". The reason for Wikipedia's blackout is simple: they, along with other major internet companies such as Google, WordPress, Reddit, Tucows, Boing Boing and sites such Twitpic all oppose the legislation currently going through the US Congress to prevent so-called content piracy. Two bills are currently under consideration, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), both of which are aimed at preventing the illegal theft of content owned by the US film, music and software industry.
That is a noble aim: the people who work hard to create the movies, TV series, music and computer games that we all love deserve to be paid for their work. They invest large amounts of money to produce content, and they do not deserve to have their product stolen and redistributed by gangs of organized criminals who make money off of the games, movies and music made by the content owners, without contributing anything to those content owners.
The trouble is, neither SOPA nor PIPA achieve their objectives of taking down what the movie industry calls "rogue websites" offering free copies of pirated material. The provisions outlined in the bill would require ISPs in the United States of America to block foreign websites offering illegal content; in the original version of the bill, by monitoring ISP's customers' internet usage (probably using a process known as deep packet inspection), but after concerns about privacy were raised, by interfering with DNS records (the system by which, for example, your computer knows that the website http://motomatters.com is located on a particular server in Dallas, Texas). Circumventing such blocks is trivial - if you know the IP address of a server, you can usually access it directly, without using the hostname - despite measures also being included in the bill to prevent getting around such blocks.
"But why should I care?" I hear you ask. "I'm just a motorcycle racing fan, and the US Congress wanting to stop people from downloading the latest Justin Bieber single doesn't affect me at all." That seems fair enough, but the trouble is that race fans could be hit much harder than they think. For the real problem with both SOPA and PIPA is not so much the technical measures proposed in the bill, as how easy it will be to get a site blocked. If an organization can make a reasonable claim that a website is hosting illegal material, then it will be able to demand that US ISPs prevent their customers from visiting the site. Not only that, they can also demand that search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing do not display search results containing links to the site. Such a site would effectively cease to exist to anyone in the United States.
The way to avoid being blocked is by refraining from posting illegal content, defined as being content displayed without the consent of the copyright holder. That should be easy enough, you would say, until you start to look at the ways in which the Internet has changed over the past five to ten years. At the end of the previous century, much of the internet was still based around the idea of one-way communication, with website owners creating content for audiences to passively consume. But with the rise of blogging and social media, audiences have stopped being passive consumers, and have increasingly started engaging with content. Readers are no longer content to just read what is written, they want to take part in the debate. On MotoMatters.com, for example, almost every content item is open for comment, and interaction with readers is positively encouraged. The comments on some stories are sometimes more interesting than the stories themselves, with informed discussion going on about all sorts of topics related to motorcycle racing - indeed, the quality of comments on the website is one of the things about the site that I am most proud of, and is highly respected within the paddock ("Where did you find all those smart readers?" one senior paddock figure quipped).
The problem with readers posting comments - or user-generated content, as it is more commonly known - is that it reaches a point where it becomes impossible to completely police. The conversation sparked by some items sees readers posting links and quotes from other websites here in their comments. I try wherever I can to replace those comments with links to the original, but there simply are not enough hours in the day to make sure that happens. Readers, in their enthusiasm, use pieces of information from a range of sources to support a particular argument one way or another, and not everyone is up to speed on the legal implications of using content taken from other sites.
I have in the past been approached by content holders (photographers and writers, mainly) with requests to remove material from the forum section of MotoMatters.com. I have naturally complied, in so far as possible, and have disabled the uploading of images and other files to both forum and website for exactly this reason. The illegal content was hosted on other servers, such as image hosting websites, so MotoMatters.com was not hosting the illegal content, though it was being displayed within the context of the site (so-called hotlinking of images). Despite my eagerness to respect the copyright of others, unless I constantly monitor the site and forum for content, there are no guarantees that I will not inadvertently violate copyright again.
All of the requests so far have been dealt with via informal, polite conversations. But if SOPA were in force, the lawyers of the companies which owned the content could simply request that the US Attorney General issue an order to block MotoMatters.com. Given the fact that some 40% of our audience is based in the US, that would be a severe blow to the site. Worse than that, however, is that they could also get an injunction blocking MotoMatters.com from receiving funds via Paypal, receiving revenue generated by Google Ads, or by our advertising partners in the US Digital Throttle. Any earnings from advertising on the site would simply be blocked, all sales of MotoMatters.com calendars and subscriptions - a vital part of our income stream - would be stopped. It would, at a stroke, kill the site stone dead.
And MotoMatters.com would not be the only site to suffer. Any site offering user comment and content - and that now includes just about every single motorcycle racing website on the internet - could suffer the same fate. Even the mighty Motorcycle News website could be shut down, because someone had posted a comment containing copyrighted content.
It gets worse, though. For offending websites to be shut down, all they need to do is to host a link to offending material. To prevent MotoMatters.com from being blacklisted in the US, we would not only have to go through all of the reader comments on the website and the forum, we would also have to check every single link posted on the site. Such a task becomes impossible for small companies to handle, and is probably beyond even the larger sites backed by large publishing conglomerates. It does open up opportunities for unscrupulous companies with very large legal departments to go after competing websites, however, as the bar to having a website blocked has been set so pitifully low. If you can find a couple of instances of copyright violations on a site - and you always can - then having the site shut down is simplicity itself. SOPA and PIPA allow the devious to destroy the competition.
While it may be argued that as I earn a living from the website, I have a duty to police the site as tightly as possible, there is another category of sites popular with fans that could be affected even worse, and without the means of handling it. Motorcycle racing fans around the world meet on a variety of forums and chatrooms to discuss their passion, and such forums are a veritable treasure trove of illegal content. Photos taken from other websites, articles cut and pasted wholesale, video clips from Youtube and links to torrents of pirated videos. None of the fans posting such material gains financially from posting such content, they are posting it solely to share their passion with like-minded souls. Material is posted without thought to provenance of copyright ownership, as fans are more concerned with debating about whether the Ducati should have stuck with the carbon fiber chassis or switched to a twin spar, whether Aprilia's CRT bike is legal or not, whether Johnny Rea, Carlos Checa or Eugene Laverty is the favorite for the World Superbike championship, and the perennial favorite, whether Casey Stoner would beat Valentino Rossi if they were both on the same equipment.
Some forum owners have already acknowledged the threat they face. One of the largest motorcycling forums, Adventure Rider, has also chosen to observe the blackout on Wednesday. Visitors to the site see a message that reads simply "ADVrider is blacked out on January 18th to protest SOPA and PIPA. We join Wikipedia, ThumperTalk, KTMTalk and thousands of other sites whose existence is threatened. If these bills pass, it could mean the end of ADVrider. Please write your representatives to let them know the asylum must go on. -- Baldy." If SOPA and PIPA are passed, the motorcycle discussion forum as we know it is almost certainly history.
We at MotoMatters.com have decided not to join the blackout, instead opting to inform you of why we oppose the acts, and why we believe they should be stopped. Content owners deserve to be paid for their work, but blocking major swathes of the internet is not the way forward. The legislation proposed under SOPA and PIPA does a terrible job of protecting copyright owners, while opening up massive opportunities for large companies to behave anti-competitively. The millions of US jobs which the MPAA, RIAA and the US Chamber of Commerce claims are under threat from "rogue websites" are much smaller than the millions of potential jobs that could be lost due to the innovation SOPA and PIPA would stifle. The proposed legislation raises a massive barrier to entry into content production, as investors will not risk putting money into ventures that could be shut down with such incredible ease. The MPAA and the RIAA believe that the content markets are a zero-sum game. Anyone with more than a passing acquaintance of the internet knows this is absolutely nonsense: what the internet does is not redistribute the pie differently, it grows the pie exponentially. And that is good for everyone.
So if you are a US citizen, use the form below (taken from the SOPA Strike website) to contact your representative to express your disapproval. If you are not a US citizen, you can contact your own government to protest, the department of foreign affairs, to protest against the US legislation, and the department of internal affairs or department of justice to demand that no such legislation be passed within your own country. As a motorcycle racing fan - or a fan of any sport, or just an ordinary internet user - you owe it to yourself to get this stopped.
Below is a video explaining what SOPA can do, and why it is such a bad idea.