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IFEX member websites go dark in protest against online piracy bills

IFEX member websites protest against SOPA and PIPA on 18 January 2012
IFEX member websites protest against SOPA and PIPA on 18 January 2012

As part of what has become the largest online protest in the history of the Internet, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and ARTICLE 19 pulled the plug on their websites on 18 January in protest against two online piracy bills currently before the U.S. Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

As of 8am EST on Wednesday, anyone trying to access the RSF English site will have been met with a roving spotlight on a blackened screen, highlighting the message to "stop SOPA… which, if adopted, would sacrifice online freedom of expression in the name of combating privacy."

"It is not right that the country that gave birth to the Internet should now deliver the death blow to digital freedom," says RSF.

ARTICLE 19 website visitors are greeted with an "Access Denied" message in nine languages on a darkened page. "This is what the web could look like," reads the message.

The IFEX members join Wikipedia, the news sharing site Reddit and numerous other Internet giants that have taken part in the "day of darkness" in a show of opposition to the proposed legislation that has pitted the media, film and music industries against Silicon Valley and free expression advocates.

Over the weekend critics of the legislation won a key battle when U.S. President Barack Obama came down on their side. The White House said in a statement that it "will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

But while IFEX members feel that SOPA now looks like it can't be passed in its current form, PIPA is still up for a vote on 24 January.

Introduced in the U.S. Senate in May 2011, critics say PIPA would use online filtering to block websites, foreign or domestic, suspected of enabling or facilitating the violation of intellectual property rights. Sites such as YouTube and Facebook would be forced to police their content to avoid being shut down since they become liable for everything users post. And ordinary users could go to jail for five years for posting any copyrighted work - even for a video of themselves singing a pop song.

Copyright holders could obtain court orders forcing search engines to omit offending websites from their results. Advertisers and online payment services would also be forbidden to do business with these sites, virtually shutting them down. Small online communities who lack the capacity to represent their users in legal battles could experience the same fate.

According to RSF, SOPA goes even further, allowing copyright holders to demand the withdrawal of online content without having to refer a case to a judge.

IFEX members have been speaking out against both bills, and specifically the threat they pose to international human rights.

Like SOPA, PIPA "requires the use of Internet censorship tools, undermines the global nature of the Internet, and threatens free speech online," they say in a letter signed by RSF, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship and more than 40 other press freedom and human rights groups.

"Today, some of the world's most repressive countries, like China, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria use DNS filtering as a means to silence their citizens… PIPA would send an unequivocal message to other nations that the use of these tools is not only acceptable, but encouraged," reads the letter.

"Worse still," the letter adds, "the circumvention technology that can be used to access information under repressive Internet regimes would be outlawed under SOPA, the very same technology whose development is funded by the State Department."

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) fears that other countries might follow the lead of the U.S. and pass similar laws that could easily be used to hinder free expression.

"It would be preferable to have a policy direction that fosters online discourse among citizens and avoids legislation that hinders and inhibits the usefulness of the Internet for debate, dialogue, and information," said CJFE executive director Annie Game.

To learn more about the measures, watch Forum for the Future's popular video below.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo

You can follow developments in the Blackout SOPA protest at @BlackoutSOPA on Twitter.

Sign the American Censorship petition here.
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    The measures contained in the Stop Online Piracy Act pose a more direct threat to freedom of expression online than they do toward piracy, and its impact extends far beyond the borders of the United States.

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