In the United States, the federal government has become increasingly interested in regulating the online sphere and getting a firm grasp on technology. This is a change for the government, as well. For the longest time, many of the nation’s laws have been ill-prepared to deal with the changes in technology that have taken place. Now, though, the government is weighing in with laws to limit use of various sites and to provide Internet service providers with the ability to determine what content they will supply to Internet users. While the government may that this is a necessary change, many feel that currently proposed government regulations present a major threat to the people who use technology. Among the important rulings are the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), and the government’s ruling on net neutrality. This sort of regulation threatens to undermine the purpose of the Internet and add unnecessary problems for individuals looking to utilize it.
SOPA was a highly controversial law introduced by Lamar Smith, a Republican out of Texas, to the House of Representatives in 2011. The law was designed to provide more power to website owners and others to seek redress for perceived violations of copyright law (Sanchez). The problem with the bill, at the current time, is that its intentions and its potential results are very different. Those who proposed the law sought primarily to stop people – mostly those outside the United States – from selling or otherwise distributing copyrighted material. Mostly, this law came in response to a perceived piracy problems on the Internet, wherein many people downloaded and profited from copyrighted movies and music. The intentions of the law are pure, but there are plenty of negatives which seem to have not been considered by those proposing this legislation.
Practically speaking, the goal primarily sought to cut access to those sites for people in the United States, primarily by cutting domain name server (DNS) records that would point people to the offending site (Espinel et al). This law, while seemingly a good and reasonable idea, could lead to a tremendous number of unintended consequences. Namely, the law would produce an externality in which lawful content was censored from those on the Internet (Lemley et al). The Internet’s primary power is its ability to provide free and open information to people from around the world. It can be a powerful force in learning, allowing individuals to gain knowledge that they might not have otherwise had. Because this is the overwhelming purpose and strength of the Internet, advocates are rightfully wary of any proposal that seeks to limit the openness of the Internet. While the proposed law would almost certainly take care of a number of problems, it would create even more, changing the very nature of the Internet as it is currently understood.
PIPA was the corresponding Senate bill, and it attempted to do much the same thing as SOPA. Opponents of PIPA have noted that the problem with the bill is not that it wants to get rid of copyrighted content. Rather, it is a law that blocks access to an entire domain, effectively removing all access to content for users (Powell). This would include a range of legal content – a brand of censorship usually not favored in the United States and certainly counter to the purpose of the Internet.
Recently, there has been movement on the issue of net neutrality. For the longest time, the Internet has operated on the principle of net neutrality, mostly because the federal government, through its agency, the FCC, has enforced rules requiring ISPs to treat all content as being the same. Net neutrality is the idea that both the government and Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all content online as being relatively equal (Cheng et al). They should not discriminate on the basis of the content, charge users more to access some content, or slow down the delivery of certain types of content. In January of 2014, a federal court found that because ISPs are not technically common carriers, the FCC does not have the right to regulate their activities in this regard. While the FCC has intimated that it will re-work its rules in compliance with the federal ruling, this brings to bear questions about net neutrality rules. Most agree that openness on the Internet is a good thing, but there are definite cons to the government getting involved. There are quite a few ISPs, and if one decides to enforce rules that slow the delivery of content to certain sites, then other ISPs will pop up to fill the void. The government’s involvement simply muddies the waters and makes the expectations on the issue less clear. The market is fully equipped to regulate itself on this issue, especially with Internet users being a highly informed brand of consumer.
Overall, government regulation of technology has proven to be a huge negative. This is mostly because congress members have proven themselves incapable of dealing effectively with issues of heightened technology. In many cases, those proposing new laws have very little understanding of the Internet or of the ways in which their laws will practically affect Internet users. Because of that, government interference and regulation threatens the sanctity of the Internet and poses tremendous problems related to clarity. Until government can take a more informed, nuanced view of technology, it is best to stay out of such matters.
- Cheng, Hsing Kenneth, Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay, and Hong Guo. “The debate on net neutrality: A policy perspective.” Information Systems Research 22.1 (2011): 60-82.
- Espinel, Victoria, Aneesh Chopra, and Howard Schmidt. “Combating Online Piracy while Protecting an Open and Innovative Internet.” The White House. Web. https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/combating-online-piracy-whileprotecting-open-and-innovative-internet (2012).
- Lemley, Mark, David S. Levine, and David G. Post. “Don’t break the Internet.” Stanford Law Review Online 64 (2011): 34.
- Powell, Alison. “Assessing the Influence of Online Activism on Internet Policy-Making: The Case of SOPA/PIPA and ACTA.” (2012).
- Sanchez, Julian. “Sopa, internet regulation and the economics of piracy.” (2012).