SOPA protests show commitment to fighting censorship

The Stop Online Piracy Act introduced by US Rep. Lamar Smith provoked strong opposition from the public, the blogosphere, and from Web content providers such as Wikipedia and Google.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) introduced by US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) provoked strong opposition from the public, the blogosphere, and from Web content providers such as Wikipedia and Google. In protest, Wikipedia shut down its English site for 24 hours and Google collected more than 7 million signatures opposing the proposed law.

Proponents of the bill claimed it would help the US government crack down on copyright infringement, particularly outside of the US, and protect intellectual property. According to Ian Norman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the cost of piracy for the software industry alone was approximately $12 billion last year.

Opponents claim the proposed legislation could threaten free speech and is equivalent to a government censure of the Internet. They say that the bill would allow the government to block access to an entire Internet domain if some infringing material is posted on a single webpage or blog.

This situation is typical of a “right versus right” dilemma. Stopping piracy is the right thing to do, yet it should not be done at the expense of free speech. 

Because of the strong public opposition to the proposed law, the House Judiciary Committee postponed drafting the bill. Yet I am sure that some alternative or compromise will be reached that will address both concerns.

The issue of censorship is ethically challenging and very complex with the Internet.

Most of us would agree that in some extraordinary cases, government censorship is acceptable or even advisable, for instance when it concerns child pornography, child molestation, hate speech, and or terrorism.

Society cannot function without governments. Chaos would result in a society without rules and the power to enforce them. However, it is in the very core nature of the state or government to increase its power and control over its citizens.

That is why we should always remain alert and not allow any government to infringe our basic liberties. In democracies, we have the means of preventing that from happening.

Before allowing any censorship, we should assess its true purpose. We should make sure before we concede that the intent of the censorship is truly for the common good. Only then should we grant to the government the right to censor.

The idea solution, of course, would be voluntary self-censorship, exemplified by Craig Newmark, who under public and financial pressure removed the offering of “adult services” on Craigslist. As advocated by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, I wish the Village Voice's Backpage.com would do the same.

Emmanuel Tchividjian is SVP and ethics officer at Ruder Finn.

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