The battle for the internet has been won for now, according to SOPAstrike.com. The New York Times reports:
A major push by copyright holders — including those in the Motion Picture Association of America... for a tough federal law to control foreign online piracy collapsed this week under stiff resistance from technology companies and their allies.
On Wednesday, as Web sites expressed opposition to the legislation, important lawmakers withdrew their support.
What are PIPA and SOPA?
Basically, there's a massive problem with people grabbing content and accessing or sharing it without permission — or paying for it. The US government is discussing legislation to combat online piracy via foreign and domestic websites.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was a U.S. House bill to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Proposals include barring advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with allegedly infringing websites, barring search engines from linking to the sites, and requiring Internet service providers (ISP) to block access to the sites. The bill would also criminalize the streaming of such content, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
User-content websites such as YouTube would be greatly affected, and concern has been expressed that they may be shut down if the bill becomes law. Opponents state the legislation would enable law enforcement to remove an entire internet domain due to something posted on a single blog, arguing that an entire online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority. In a 1998 law, copyright owners are required to request the site to remove the infringing material within a certain amount of time. SOPA would bypass this "safe harbor" provision by placing the responsibility for detecting and policing infringement onto the site itself. — Wikipedia
The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 or PIPA), also known as Senate Bill 968 or S.968, is a proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to "rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods", especially those registered outside the U.S. The bill was introduced on May 12, 2011, by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors...  The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill, but Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) placed a hold on it.
The PROTECT IP Act is a re-write of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which failed to pass in 2001...
Why are they necessary?
There is legislation in place already but some of the companies that rely on trademarked and copyrighted works, e.g. the music and film industry, believe it is necessary to protect their interests.
Much of the opposition likely to remain could be those ad-based business interests which profit from piracy, and which abuse the DMCA “safe harbor” by claiming absolute immunity from copyright liability, if they simply respond to takedown notices for specific works, even if they generally turn a knowing blind-eye to systematic piracy by a rogue website. — Scott Cleland in an article on Forbes.
Who would be affected by these laws?
Well yesterday Megavideo and Megaupload were shut down by the authorities, and Dutch citizen Kim Dotcom was arrested along with some of the company's executives. In New Zealand. Extradition proceedings are under way to bring him to the US for trial on charges of copyright violation. Neither megavideo.com nor megaupload.com will load if you try to visit their websites.
This is the problem: if those laws were enacted such incidents might become more commonplace. Your website could be shut down on suspicion of copyright violation. You'd have no recourse and you would be obliged to prove your innocence before you could get online again. A competitor could accuse me of nicking images from their website and wouldn't even have to prove it. The onus would be on me to prove it. Since my website is hosted on a US-based web host, that would put me out of business. The potential for abuse is enormous, and that's why it has to be stopped. And that's not all.
Kim Dotcom was arrested because other people uploaded videos to Megaupload. He's taking the fall for what members of his websites do. The only way to avoid being taken down by these draconian laws would be to employ more people to effectively spy on their members and double-check that what they are doing is legal. That's impossible for sites with millions of members, and under the provisions of the proposed law, it still wouldn't keep you out of trouble because you could be shut down pending an investigation during which you would have to prove your innocence.
Are they even legal?
They're unconstitutional. Making it illegal to link to seized websites is a violation of the First Amendment, whatever the bill says. Acting without proof of guilt violates the Eighth. The massive protests on the internet have forced the senators who were at first in favour of the bill to backtrack and it is widely believed that it will die completely next Monday when it goes to the Senate. Protests included website blackouts on Wikipedia, The Oatmeal, and several webhosts. Anonynous launched a DDoS attack on the US Department of Justice, effectively shutting it down for a few hours on Thursday, according to CNet. Several websites ran petitions to send to the US government to ask them not to pass the bill. SOPAStike claimed over 10 million emails have been sent via them.
Aren't Google, Wikipedia, and all those guys exaggerating?
Have you seen this? Torrentfinder.com has been shut down on piracy charges because some of its users had linked to websites that provided pirated copies of videos, etc. If those laws are passed, this website will be shut down because I linked to them — and all I did was mention that they'd been shut down by the Feds! I'd have to go through all my old posts to see if I had linked to anything potentially dodgy and could still be shut down on suspicion. Although the Uncle Sam image has been in the public domain for some time, if someone complains that I lifted it from their website, even though it's public domain and I've altered the daylights out of it, I'm stuffed. It would limit my creativity because I'd have to be wary of people getting funny about my artwork. They could claim I took it from them even if it were 100% my own work.
Read this article from rawstory.com. Scared? You should be. Governments should not have control over the internet and should not try to stop people from viewing what they want. It's a bit hypocritical to criticise China for censorship and restricting freedom of speech if they're doing it, too. There are two more CNet articles that cover this more fully, U.S. seizes sites linked to copyright infringement and Senate panel approves domain name seizure bill. Those laws are live and they're enacting them now. With no warning and no due process. It's a slippery slope, and once we're on it, there's no way off.
But it's not our problem, is it?
Be assured that this is not a US problem, it affects us all. Remember how I reported the shutdown of CZ.CC? It's still down and there's no sign of it ever coming back. It returned to service briefly but it seems to be gone for good now. And why was it shut down? Some of its members misbehaved by spreading malware and phishing. They're based in Prague and a US company, Microsoft, got them shut down, saying that registrars should know their clients, i.e. check them out to make sure they behave. Monitor them.
...pawn shop operators must require a name, address and proper identification from customers, while by contrast there are currently no requirements necessitating domain hosts to know anything about the people using their subdomains –making it easy for domain owners to look the other way. Through this case, we hope to demonstrate that if domain owners don’t hold themselves accountable for knowing their customers, they will be held accountable for what is happening on their infrastructure.
What can we do?
Protest. It works. Sign the petition at www.americancensorship.org, there's a place to sign for non-US nationals. Also sign at www.avaaaz.org and www.fightforthefuture.org. The more signatures they get, the more likely they are to kill the bill. There is adequate legislation at the moment and more sensible laws are being drafted, but let's work together to keep the internet free for everyone.