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Al Jazeera’s “Controlling the Web” Film Connects Internet Freedom Issues

Published:  August 22, 2012
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Wikipedia’s website blackout protest of SOPA, above, is a major focus of an Internet freedom documentary. (Image credit Search Influence via Flickr) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This post was originally published by Tom Risen on The Netizen Project on August 14, 2012.

A new documentary by Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English called “Controlling the Web” succinctly explains the connection between key issues in the struggle for digital liberties in the United States, including copyright, surveillance and cybersecurity.

The documentary opens in early 2012 with the fight against two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) respectively.  The battle, which pitted free expression and privacy activists against proponents of tougher copyright law, featured the largest online protest in U.S. history. On Jan. 18, 2012, approximately 100,000 websites opposed SOPA and PIPA by blacking out their screens, inspiring 15 million people in one day to petition Congress not to pass the bill. After that political support for the copyright legislation in Congress dissolved.

In the film, Sascha Meinrath, vice president of the New America Foundation and director of its Open Technology Institute, explains SOPA/PIPA were not about supporting arts and sciences, but rather lining the pockets of corporate copyright holders. Last year, Meinrath argued that that the bills were “so technically impractical that they do little to address “[copyright infringement]” and were ” fundamentally incompatible with a free society.”

Commenting on the struggle for digital rights throughout the film is Clay Shirky, who explained the damaging impact  SOPA / PIPA would have had by requiring Web companies to heavily police their user base for copyrighted content or risk being shut down. The protests by an alliance of Internet companies, grassroots activists and non-profit websites like Wikipedia came to Shirky as a surprise.

“I study this stuff for a living and I thought we were going to lose,” said Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.”

A member of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) speak in the film presenting the bills as efforts to protect the intellectual property of artists from online pirates who “steal” their work and their opportunity to profit from it.

“The issue with SOPA was an effort to prevent the wholesale theft of American work product. And SOPA was an effort to combat that, to combat foreign websites that are peddling stolen American IP,” Schiff said in the film.

Continuing through the halls of power the film analyzes congressional legislation for cybersecurity and concerns by civil liberties groups about the expansive surveillance efforts of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. Along with efforts to control the Web, Fault Lines also examines hacktivist efforts by interviewing a member of Anonymous and by speaking with Quinn Norton, a reporter from Wired who gained enough trust from the group to do in-depth reporting about them.

“Anything you do to restrict copyright violation is also a restriction on free speech” said Norton in the film, explaining how policies governing networks and content affect so much of our lives as citizens of the Internet. “The Internet is real life.”

While the Obama Administration ultimately opposed SOPA, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that copyright enforcement and freedom of expression should be compatible. In a letter on Oct. 25, 2011, to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), she stated that “there is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement of expression on the Internet.” The film outlines how the Obama administration has continued Bush administration policies of surveillance and supported copyright restriction efforts.

“Where we’re heading, unfortunately, is more toward a locked down system, where there’s an intervention that happens that says you cannot use this application or this service or have this kind of conversation,” Meinrath said in the documentary. “And in that world, where you need a surveillance mechanism to check all of that, it begins to look a lot more like the Tehrans or Chinas, and a lot less like what we envision the United States to look like.”

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