America isn’t the only nation struggling with online piracy. Two anti-piracy bills approved by Russian leader Vladimir Putin have received criticism for seeking to blacklist entire sites hosting pirated content, rather than deleting or censoring the specific content in question.
The first of these bills gives the Russian government authority to ban sites that do not meet certain criteria, or are deemed “unsuitable” by government administrators. This mode of policing the Internet bypasses judicial oversight, and has been implemented solely with the discretion of government administrators.
Notice the use of the word “sites,” and not URLs. Why is this important?
A URL is a link to a specific page on any given website. For example, this link contains a URL to a YouTube video, “Dumb Ways to Die.” It isn’t the entire site; it’s a single page within YouTube.
That video was banned by the Kremlin even before the legislation has been officially enacted, based on the government’s belief that the video advocates suicide.
What’s more, the government banned the entire site, not just the specific page the video was hosted on. This is an important distinction to make: websites that merely host content are subject to risk, and not the individual uploaders or pieces of content.
The second Russian bill works in a similar way, aimed specifically at reducing film piracy by banning sites that host copyrighted films.
Comparisons have been drawn between this bill and America’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which extends copyright laws to the Internet and allows the federal government to delete specific copyrighted materials suspected of infringement. The significant difference between the proposed U.S. legislation and the enacted Russian legislation is that Russia blocks entire sites, while the U.S. policies target specific content.
Russia’s “anti-piracy” laws are extreme measures that have been met with much opposition. For example, Russia’s Pirate Party aims to stream 6,800 banned websites in direct civil disobedience of its government.
In America, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was met with similar criticism in 2012, resulting in a voluntary “Internet blackout” of many sites, including Wikipedia, whose visitors were asked to “Imagine a world without free knowledge” upon visiting the site.
Some Russian websites have copied this tactic, and have alluded to the Dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” in their URL error codes to illustrate their view of the state’s domineering power over information flow.
This type of power struggle will become an issue in America again. SOPA has been amended multiple times and is still subject to debate on the Congressional floor.
Americans have traditionally placed a high value on the rights associated with intellectual property being protected. In fact, the Founding Fathers ensured the power to grant patents was specifically granted by the Constitution.
On the Internet, that philosophy collides with other rights we traditionally hold dear under our First Amendment rights to free speech. This tightrope walk between Internet censorship and online piracy prevention is a complex one that must be addressed with these opposing principles in mind.
We can’t completely censor the Internet. There is a societal value to sites like Wikipedia, Google, and YouTube. But, we also have to protect innovation and origination. Allowing copyrighted materials to be distributed without the owner’s consent would reduce incentive to work, innovate, and, ultimately, the jobs that go into creating original work.
An “all or nothing” approach is counter-intuitive to the competing ideals of property protection and freedom of speech. If ever there was a time for compromise, it’s now.