Internet control a slippery slope

By Shyu Ting-yao 徐挺耀  / 

Thu, Jun 06, 2013 - Page 8

Two years ago, several members of the US Congress wanted to introduce the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in an attempt to expand the scope of intellectual property protection and restrict the rights of netizens.

The bill was opposed by commercial online businesses and Web sites such as Wikipedia, and even the White House said that it would only support a bill that did not disrupt or destroy the current structure of the Internet. In the end, nothing came of the bill.

If the bill had been passed, it would have hampered the Internet industry in such a way that its implementation would not have been practical.

In Taiwan, the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has proposed an amendment to the Copyright Act (著作權法), introducing demands that Internet service providers (ISPs) block Web sites that infringe on intellectual property rights, most of which are located overseas. The IPO promoted the introduction of intellectual property legislation similar to SOPA.

[After receiving widespread criticism from netizens over the past two weeks, the IPO on Monday withdrew its plan.]

The proposal may have seemed well intended at first sight, but it would have created a host of problems if it had been implemented.

Generally speaking, the public supports the protection of intellectual property rights and thinks that strengthening protection is a good thing, both for society at large and for Internet users.

Intellectual property rights can be protected in accordance with the spirit of commercial contracts, and the government can increase penalties, pursue criminal offenses across international borders, strengthen information to domestic and international businesses and simplify intellectual property claims.

Resorting to asking ISPs to block Web sites or domain names is the laziest and most backward way of dealing with the problem of intellectual copyright infringements. Blocking ISPs or domain name servers would have a major impact and should not be done arbitrarily.

If this avenue is opened, we can be certain that monitoring and controls “for the good of the public” will increase. This would be similar to a politician declaring an emergency order to amend the Constitution to protect a certain public interest — it basically cannot be reversed.

If the ISPs had agreed, what would happen if intellectual property protection activists want to extend that to include individual users tomorrow? Then you have a complete version of SOPA on your hands.

Netizens would have surely questioned why a few prominent people in various fields could decide which Web sites they can visit. The review committee would be made up of intellectual property protection lobbyists, officials in charge of intellectual property rights, ISPs and so on, but there would be no representatives of Web site owners or users.

The powers granted by such a SOPA-like law are opposed by Internet companies around the world. When it comes to Internet-related matters, most people are likely to put a great deal more trust in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg than in our officials.

Intellectual property protection and which Web sites people visit are two different matters. The former is a matter for civil law, the latter is a basic and universal right.

There are two reasons someone would connect the two: either they have ulterior motives that they hide behind using lofty rhetoric, or they are very lazy.

Those countries that have blocked a few Web sites are constantly arguing over the issue and there is still no definitive answer. It is not hard to see what would happen to Internet operators and users if second-level government agencies could tell an ISP to block a Web site.

Shyu Ting-yao is chief executive of the Association of Digital Culture Taiwan.

Translated by Perry Svensson