You may have heard rumblings and grumblings about a Senate bill that would "effectively destroy" YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Google+, and any other service that lets people post things on the internet.
If a "directory, index, reference, pointer, or hypertext link" is found to distribute content without permission, the PROTECT IP Act (.pdf) would allow copyright owners or the Attorney General to sue for the deletion of that Internet service from the United States internet, by rendering it unsearchable on search engines and impossible to access with United States DNS servers. (Security experts worry that this will cause Americans who still want to access sites like RapidShare to rely on foreign DNS servers, which would open another can of worms.)
Certain protections are available - for example, the offending site has to be determined not to have significant non-infringing uses, which would appear to cover most of the services listed above. However, that is subject to interpretation. Even though Apple reportedly paid $100 million to the major labels for permission to launch the iCloud music locker, it could easily be argued that the majority of content stored there and on any other "legal" music locker service technically infringes on copyright.
This could be why the Consumer Electronics Association, NetCoalition, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association want to delay the bill to prevent "undue collateral damage."
One question at stake here is simple, and some thought it was resolved in 1998: Should companies that let people post things on the internet be responsible for what those people post, or should they only have to remove content after being notified? Another question: Should the United States adopt a protectionist stance towards the internet, defending its content industries against overseas piracy the same way totalitarian regimes "defend" their citizens from ideas they deem offensive?
We might put this another way: Do we really want to break the carefully-constructed, end-to-end nature of the internet - the very thing that makes it special and different from, say, television - to take down a few overseas sites facilitating the piracy of content created in the U.S.? Do we really need a precedent that lets the Attorney General break the internet at the behest of certain industries, especially when the internet comes in so handy for so many things?
You can find the remastered Beatles catalog on Rapidshare, but not on Spotify. Would fixing that break the internet?
On the surface, the PROTECT IP Act ("Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property"), whose proponents appear to be ramping up their efforts, might appear to make sense. Services like MegaUpload and RapidShare, which traffic in millions of infringing transactions every day, would go away, allowing legitimately-licensed services to flourish and our country's copyright creators to earn more money.
The thing is, critics claim, making services preemptively responsible for what people do with their products and starting down the slippery slope of internet filtering would do more harm than good.
For starters, there is no way to block all infringing content from any social media service, other than shutting it down. YouTube and other sites can't even preemptively take content down when they spot it, because that would give copyright holders a new angle with which to sue them. If YouTube (or any other site) knew about infringing content A and removed it, it arguably should have known about infringing content B and removed that, too.
Internet services can't perfectly block copyrighted content from appearing. All it would take to foil some content identification systems would be to add a few milliseconds of time or edit a song so that it fades in and out, and an internet service could fail to recognize it by algorithm. There is no 100-percent-perfect content identification system, whether human- or machine-powered. Just ask the tens of thousand of Chinese citizens whose job it is to censor the internet for their fellow citizens, or the makers of the Shazam iPhone app, which, as amazing as it is, fails to recognize songs all the time.
Keep in mind also that every recording ever made is copyrighted, though most people seem only to think that commercially-released media is protected by copyright law. If I shoot a video of my cat, that video and the accompanying audio is copyrighted and I own the copyrights. I might choose to license my cat video under a permissive, Creative Commons-style license or upload it to YouTube with a setting that allows other people to embed it elsewhere, but the fact remains: My cat video is copyrighted, because it was "recorded into a fixed medium."
Under the PROTECT IP Act, I should have the same right to sue sites or ask to have them removed from the internet that Hollywood studios have. If you thought the patent troll scene was harmful, just wait until the copyright trolls show up.
A world where anyone can sue to have a thing deleted from the formerly "unbreakable" internet every time their cat video is copied, distributed, or viewed without permission would be a very different one indeed, and probably not preferably so.
Our current system is clumsy, because it requires copyright holders to alert services to infringing content, ask them to remove it, and then only sue if they fail to do so. It also allows the world wide web to be world wide.
Citizens have access to stuff in other countries whose governments might do things differently. Sometimes that means someone downloads a song without paying for it. Other times, it means a brutal dictator is toppled by Twittering subjects.