If you don’t know what SOPA is, you should look it up. While touted as a piece of US legislation designed to curtail piracy, it has the potential to allow corporations to censor online activism as well.
In a nutshell, SOPA will enable corporations to effectively shut down websites that they believe are infringing their copyrights and trademarks. All they have to do is file notice (not prove to a court, but simply file notice) that their copyright has been infringed to a service provider, such as the one which registers the name greenpeace.org on the internet, and that entity has 5 days to take action to end service. If in fact there was not copyright infringement, the service provider is immune from lawsuit by Greenpeace for taking the site down or suspending any other services.
In effect, the law says that Copyright infringement is so great a crime that Corporations can play judge and jury, presume guilt, and possibly infringe civil rights, free speech, and privacy in the defense of their interests.
They can demand that search engines and social networking sites block access to the targeted site, (which will impact websites outside the US as well) and that payment services and advertisers cease doing business with the accused site. A previous provision, that internet service providers block access to the site through the domain name system, has for now been removed from the bill: a good thing, perhaps, but not if it means a better chance for the rest of the bill’s draconian measures going through.
So what’s this got to do with activism?
What happens when Amnesty International features Shell’s logo in a call to action against human rights abuse in Nigeria? What happens when Oxfam publishes a picture with the Starbuck’s logo on their website to protest that company’s action against fair trade coffee in Ethiopia? Well, it so happens that trademark infringement is part of the bill as well — and that is an open invitation to corporate abuse of SOPA/PIPA to silence critics.
At Greenpeace, we’ve managed to put some pretty serious political judo moves on some mighty corporations by leveraging their own intellectual property against them. Whether it’s spoofing VW’s most expensive superbowl ad of all time, jamming the Exxon logo, creating a Kit-Kat ad that illustrates the rainforest destruction inherent in palm-oil production, or putting up a look-alike Apple.com website, we’ve rigorously exercised our right to free speech in freely speaking out against corporate abuse of the environment. We use their own language, their own marketing, their own strength against them.
Thing is, while court case after court case has agreed with us that parody is a protected form of free speech, the Corporations at the pointy end of our Social Media attacks tend to disagree. Exxon/Esso took us to court in France over alleged copyright infringement of their logo when we did this to it:
Kit Kat famously failed when they attempted to have a video featuring their brand removed from YouTube for trademark violation — hundreds of our supporters reposted the video on other sites and their own Facebook profiles. Eventually, YouTube’s lawyer’s intervened and the video was restored.
Under SOPA, YouTube *itself* could have been shut down for hosting our Kit Kat video. Facebook could have gone dark when supporters posted our videos. Greenpeace.org would have gone dark worldwide. And Kit Kat owner Nestle never would have been compelled to revise their policy on palm oil procurement, a move which has struck a major blow to an industry which is mowing down orang-utan habitat in Indonesia to plant palm trees.
You can imagine our corporate targets twiddling their fingers and intoning “yesssss, that would be wonderful: Smithers, buy some votes, quickly.”
Which is why you need to oppose SOPA/PIPA. If you are a US citizen, write your representative. If you live outside the US, sign this petition. If you want to do more, check out these suggestions from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.