It may only be April, but 2012 has already seen a worrying number of legislative acts hit the headlines that threaten online privacy. From the entertainment industry-backed SOPA in the USA, to the UK’s surveillance state-issued CCDP, 2012 has seen governments and industries across the western world try to put the brakes on the vibrant, free-thinking, online ecology that has grown over the last decade.
Given our vested interest in securing online anonymity and privacy, the IVPN blog has followed all these threats closely. So we thought it was about time to pause and have a little recap of which pieces of online legislation still pose a threat to the web as we know it, and which have been successfully challenged by public opposition.
A Quick Guide To Online Privacy Legislation
The Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced to the United States House of Representatives last October and will probably be remembered as the first major piece of legislation to embed the issue of online privacy firmly in the public consciousness. SOPA was a bill designed to protect the interest of incumbents in the entertainment industry, who have watched their monopolies crumble around them as the internet disrupted traditional business models (and would rather persecute customers than adapt to new technology). However, SOPA’s broad and ill-thought-out drafting would have effectively given copyright holders the power to shut down major sites such as YouTube and Facebook if users posted copyrighted material.
Luckily SOPA will also go down in history as the first attack on online privacy that was successfully defeated by a combination of grass roots activism, new online ‘hactivist’ protests and opposition from big industry players such as Google and Wikipedia. The bill is currently in a state of suspension, but the ‘SOPA’ name is now so tainted that it’s unlikely to surface again.
The Protect IP Act is SOPA’s corresponding US Senate bill that aims to give copyright holders the power to shut down websites that it believes infringes on its copyrights. Although PIPA would have essentially given copyright holders the same powers as SOPA, it’s wording was not as extreme and it didn’t directly attack legal services such as YouTube and Facebook. Many journalists and activists therefore believed that SOPA was something of a distraction or a ploy to divert attention away from PIPA. However, outrage over SOPA eventually spread to PIPA also, and in late January Senator Harry Reid said a vote on the bill is postponed – though possible, it doesn’t look like PIPA will be making a return.
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is a global trade agreement that, like SOPA, puts the interests of copyright holders before the interests of a free and open web. If ratified, it would result a huge invasion of privacy as ISPs would have to track user browsing. The act was passed in the USA back in 2009, but it only made headlines at the beginning of this year when EU countries began voting on it. ACTA was labelled as the EU version of SOPA and sparked protests right across the continent. ACTA was passed in a number of EU states but 6 states – including Germany and Poland – were forced by popular protest to suspend voting. EU nations still have until March 2013 to ratify ACTA.
However, Poland has categorically said it will not sign the act and Germany doesn’t look likely to either. Furthermore the EU official who was overseeing ACTA, Kader Arif, resigned from his post, calling the bill “unacceptable”, and attacked the secrecy behind its drafting. The man who replaced him – British MEP David Martin – has also said that ACTA poses too much of a risk to online freedoms to ratify. Hopefully, this opposition means ACTA won’t pass in the EU.
The UK government’s Digital Economies Act - rushed through in the dying hours of the Labour government in 2010 - was yet another bill designed to prop-up the ailing businesses of copyright holders in the music and entertainment industries, by forcing internet service providers to spy on potential file sharers. If the users are caught file-sharing more than three times after being warned, then the ISPs will be forced to ban them from the internet. UK ISPs, understandably, didn’t like the idea of becoming an internet police force, and therefore dragged the DEA through the UK courts for two years. Because of protests, two sections of the act, which required ISPs to block copyright-infringing websites, have been removed. But in March, the ISPs battle against the DEA suffered a big defeat, when its court appeal to prevent the bill from entering into law was denied. Barring any further government reviews, the DEA looks set to enter British law.
Unlike SOPA, ACTA and the DEA, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme was not the brain child of the entertainment industry, but a UK government initiative to create a mass surveillance scheme to benefit law enforcement. The CCDP basically removes an important layer of judicial oversight between your private emails and any law enforcement agent who wants to spy on them. If it were not for The Times newspaper leaking details about the bill, then we probably wouldn’t even know about it. The CCDP would also mean ISPs have to retain all of your personal data and then hand them over to government without any court order – all it would take is idle suspicion. The CCDP has not yet been passed and since it was leaked there’s been an outcry from the UK public and the press. What happens next depends on how much pressure protesters place on the UK government and whether or not the surveillance plans are technically feasible. For more information on protesting against CCDP check out our guide.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act is the latest threat to emerge from the state lawmakers in the US. But after the failure of SOPA, the US government is re-branding its clamp-down on internet freedoms by invoking the spectre of Chinese cyber terrorism – far more scary than file-sharers. CISPA is slightly less worse than SOPA as it doesn’t give law enforcement the powers to directly shut down websites, but it’s a very vaguely-written piece of legislation that lumps cyber-terrorism together with theft of intellectual property (i.e. file-sharing). So the outcome – internet users being spied on for violating copyright – is essentially the same. The most dangerous aspect of CISPA is that big internet players such as Google and Facebook support the bill, as it takes the weight of policing copyrighted content off their shoulders and hands it to law enforcement agencies. CISPA has not yet been approved and the protest against it is well under-way. Whether or not the protests succeed, like they did against SOPA, is down to the amount of pressure put on politicians, so get involved!