A doorway labelled "Internet" with black bars blocking entrance

If passed, legistlation like SOPA will have a detrimental effect on cultural heritage informatics work. (Photo by kyz; CC BY 2.0)

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely heard of a piece of US legislation called SOPA, more formally known as the Stop Internet Piracy Act. It is less formally – but perhaps more popularly! – known as The Internet Killer. Though SOPA is intended to give the government greater power in halting Internet piracy – the illegal downloading and streaming of copyrighted material – it is a highly dangerous bill that, if passed, will change the web as we know it and, as such, have a drastic effect on the field of cultural heritage informatics.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes the bill most succinctly in their one-pager on the topic [pdf]:

The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) is a dangerous new “anti-piracy” bill being debated in the House of Representatives. Supporters claim that SOPA targets “rogue” foreign websites that encourage online [copyright] infringement, but the bill’s vague language would create devastating new tools for silencing legitimate speech all around the web.

SOPA would authorize the US federal government to exercise DNS blocking which is a web censorship method utilized by the governments of China, Iran, and Russia. This means that the government could create an Internet blacklist and could restrict the entire country’s access to certain web-content based on domain names. Under SOPA, a site could lawfully be blacklisted for simply linking to copyrighted content. Furthermore, SOPA holds website owners accountable for their user’s behavior; for instance, if a YouTube user posts a video that includes someone singing copyrighted music, the government could blacklist YouTube.com for that user’s infringement. This bill affords the government significant control over the flow of information in the US and poses alarming implications for cultural heritage institutions working with the web.

Brandon Butler, writing on behalf of the Library Copyright Alliance [pdf], raises concern over SOPA’s construction of a “willful” copyright infringer and the legal repercussions that libraries could face if the bill passes. Though he expresses concern specifically on behalf of libraries, his concerns are applicable, I think, to a wide range of cultural heritage institutions that utilize the web and digital tools. Butler argues that SOPA expands the meaning of a “willful” copyright infringer to the point where it would increase libraries’ exposure to criminal charges for services that many currently provide to patrons, such as streaming media, photo repositories, and other online services.

Cultural heritage institutions have been able to do some really awesome work in appropriating historical artifacts for access and use through the web. The possibilities for libraries, schools, and museums to provide innovative, media-rich, GPS-based learning tools are growing with the increasing pervasiveness of consumer mobile technology. Many libraries and museums, for instance, run mobile sites or applications rich in photos, video, and sound that make their collections accessible outside of the brick and mortar archive to patrons, teachers, and students across the country. Through the innovative application of web technology, institutions have been able to broaden their audience, make their collections more accessible, and become valued creative forces in the broad scope of the digital humanities and sciences.

Copyright has long been a complicated issue in the domain of cultural heritage, even before the digital age, but SOPA will make it a nearly insurmountable problem on the institutional level for libraries, museums, and schools. With the high legal risk it poses for cultural heritage institutions, it is likely that if SOPA passes there will be a widespread decrease in institutional engagement in the project of building digital cultural heritage repositories, tools, and applications. Innovative and exciting technological work is happening in the domain of cultural heritage and sadly, it appears that one piece of federal legislation, if passed, could halt all of it. When critics call SOPA the Internet killer, what they really mean is that it murders creativity by shackling individuals and institutions who build, make, create, and compose online into unnavigable, high-risk legal quagmires, effectively annihilating innovation and invention.

SOPA represents the US federal government’s continued misunderstanding of the Internet and the utilities and practices surrounding it. Copyright law in the United States has historically been slow to catch up with advancing technological mediums and modes of distribution. SOPA is not an effort on the part of Congress to catch up with us and the powerful digital tools we wield, but instead an effort to hold us back with incredibly arcane, borderline authoritarian legislation. The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) has not been signed into law yet, but it’s on the fast-track to passing. SOPA has wide-reaching implications for the freedom of speech and access to information and it is in the best interest of the American people that this bill not pass.

In order to even begin to fairly and appropriately legislate the Internet, a paradigm shift in how we think about copyright is needed. Conceiving of digital artifacts and spaces as property has proven to be inadequate both for legislators and digital authors; property, generally a thing that can be physically held and thus regulated easily, gets abstracted to the point of uselessness in online spaces. Instead, it seems more appropriate to think about digital media in terms of access which is focused more on boundaries of engagement and less on property ownership.