The week when Wikipedia's English edition went dark, it was only the most visible sign of a great level of global concern about the attempts by U.S. lawmakers to assert their views of copyright law on the rest of the world. One of the provisions of the two proposed laws would give judges in the United States the power to authorize U.S. law enforcement officers to effectively take down foreign Websites that were alleged to contain pirated content.
Under the proposed legislation, the method of taking these sites offline varies. In some cases, a judge could order search engines to stop serving up results from allegedly offending sites. In other cases, payment processing sites could be ordered to stop processing payments, which would kill them just as effectively. Worse, halting the payment processing action would only require an assertion by someone who claimed to be a copyright holder who issued a letter giving five days' warning. No judicial review would be required.
I learned about the depths of these concerns during a series of appearances on foreign talk shows. In conversations with journalists involved with Al Jazeera's "Inside Story" show there were questions about why the entire U.S. legal system was catering to a relatively small set of interests. On Russia Today's "Crosstalk" program, there were similar questions. But while preparing for the show, I heard many concerns about why the United States thought it should be able to impose its laws on foreign countries.
Part of the reason for concern is that the United States and other countries already have treaties in place regarding copyrights, and those treaties work, as was clearly shown in the takedown of the Megaupload site on Jan. 19. In that massive bust, the FBI along with authorities from a number of other countries detained the principals of the site and took the site and all of its related domains offline.
So the obvious question arises. If this capability already exists, why do we need SOPA and PIPA? The reason that was given publicly is that sometimes it's hard to actually find the people responsible for rogue sites. But it seems that after some investigation, law enforcement was able to coordinate the action over several countries on multiple continents. Perhaps this would have been able to take place more easily with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or Protect IP Act (PIPA) in place, but clearly it's possible without them.
This isn't the first time such a coordinated arrest has taken place, although the Megaupload bust was by far the biggest. But what else were the backers of SOPA and PIPA looking for? For one thing, they don't want to have to wait for a year while the whole thing is investigated and coordinated. They want a site that they think is handling pirated material taken down in days.