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Today's demonstration in Westlake Center may be is definitely* snowed out, but some of the Web's most popular sites are still blacked out


Ben Huh, I Can Has Cheezburger Creator, Says Internet 'Flexing Its Political Muscle' With SOPA/PIPA Protest

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Today's demonstration in Westlake Center may be is definitely* snowed out, but some of the Web's most popular sites are still blacked out in protest of the Internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA. Among them are the Cheezburger network of sites, and the company's founder and CEO Ben Huh says the online activism in response to the controversial measures is unprecedented.

If SOPA and PIPA are still just silly-sounding acronyms to you, get familiar quick -- they could dramatically alter the way the Internet works. SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it was introduced by conservative Texas lawmaker Lamar Hunt. According to OpenCongress, if enacted the law would:
...establish a system for taking down websites that the Justice Department determines to be dedicated to copyright infringement. The DoJ [Department of Justice] or the copyright owner would be able to commence a legal action against any site they deem to have "only limited purpose or use other than infringement," and the DoJ would be allowed to demand that search engines, social networking sites and domain name services block access to the targeted site. It would also make unauthorized web streaming of copyrighted content a felony with a possible penalty up to five years in prison.
PIPA -- the Protect Intellectual Property Act -- is the companion to SOPA in the Senate, and it includes many of the same provisions. Additionally, it would give the government and copyright holders the ability to "block sites without first allowing the alleged infringer to defend themselves in court."

The Motion Picture Association of America and other stakeholders with deep pockets say such measures are the only way to put a stop to illegal file sharing on services like BitTorrent. But some of the people behind the most visited sites on the Internet fear that the laws have the potential to stymie creative online, and will ultimately lead to unabashed censorship.

Today, Wikipedia, Reddit, and several other sites will replace their standard content with a black page that educates readers about SOPA and PIPA, and directs them to contact their Congressmen to express their concerns. Huh helped spearhead the blackout, and he talked about why, and what it means for the future of the Internet in an interview earlier this week.

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Ben Huh, creator of I Can Has Cheezburger, says SOPA and PIPA have spawned a grassroots activist movement on the Internet
Seattle Weekly: So SOPA has been "shelved indefinitely" but PIPA is still on the table. What, if anything, does that change about the blackout?

Ben Huh: We are not satisfied with shelving. We're just afraid that's a code word for 'We'll bring it back when you guys aren't paying attention. We're still going to put up a black page that allows people to learn more about PIPA and how to stop that. We're directing all of our efforts to getting the senate to stop PIPA.

SW: When most people think of Cheezburger, the first thing that comes to mind is Photoshopped pictures of cats doing funny things - not something anyone would want to censor. How would SOPA and/or PIPA affect I Can Haz Cheezburger, and your company's other sites (Fail Blog, Know Your Meme, The Daily What)?

BH: Just to give you an idea, cat photo related content is less than 10 percent of what we do; 90 percent of our stuff is free form. Anybody can do anything on our site to create humor. Our users rely on re-mixable content. In order for people to be creative and express freedom they can't sit there and think about, 'Will the place I uploaded to get shut down because of it?'

I think the White House has clearly come out against this notion and changing the laws that govern freedom of expression on the Internet today. The DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), as flawed as a bill as it is, creates very clear distinctions about what a company is liable for, and what they're not liable for. Right now we're not liable if somebody says something libelous in our comments...PIPA and SOPA will take that protection away from us in a very real way.

SW: One of the strongest criticisms of these bills is that they'd give America a level of Internet censorship that's akin to China and Iran. Is that really true in your eyes, or is that hyperbole to get people's attention?

BH: There's two parts that ring true in statement. One is DNS blocking, the other is removal of links on Internet by government decree. For example, I was in China a couple months ago. Beijing has a very bad smog problem. If you write the Chinese word for smog, it will disappear, the post will literally disappear from Web as if it never existed. That's what will face if linking is prohibited.

One of the things that PIPA and SOPA do is make it illegal to talk about something. They're trying to force Google to remove things from their index. No matter how bad something is, if you can't talk about it, it moves very much away from copyright enforcement to violating first amendment rights.

SW: The Obama administration announced that it opposes a couple important parts of the bill, but also said "online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs." Do you agree with that?

BH: I feel like piracy has been given a lot more attention than it deserves. I do not believe it's as much of an economic harm as people believe it to be. The calculated ecnomic cost of piracy comes form one-to-one trades. In other words, if I go out and buy a bootleg, I will not buy a legitimate one. On the surface that sounds right, but almost every study out there says that's not the case. It's not the result of people trying to save money or avoid paying. It's a lack of access.

Why is it impossible for me to purchase or watch a stream of a brand new movie the day it comes out because I don't want to pay extra for it to go to the theater? Why will they not take my money? Someone says 'I don't want to go to theater, I'll just go on BitTorrent.' It's wrong, it's certainly wrong, and people shouldn't do that, but it doesn't make ruining other people's business models correct because they don't want to provide that service.

Wouldn't fewer people spending $12 to go to the theater and paying, say, $5 to stream that same movie at home take a big chunk out of Hollywood's bottom line?

When radio came out people said 'No one will ever buy records because people can listen on the radio. It turned out opposite, people bought tons of records cause they heard new material. Videotapes and DVDs became a humongous force for people to go purchase media assets that they wouldn't have before. There are countless examples of technology threatening media that ended up creating a much bigger market.

SW: As a whole, the tech industry has not been very politically active despite having loads of cash to spend on lobbying, and an incredibly broad audience that they can influence. SOPA and PIPA seem to have changed that a little bit, but will it have lasting impact?

BH: What's interesting is that, philosophically, people in technology, myself in included have an aversion to buying the government. When we see others buying the government I don't think our number one response is 'Let's do what they're doing.' I'm really proud of the way this movement came together. It was grassroots, people volunteering. It was people in very chaotic ways saying the same thing. I feel like I'm watching the Internet exercise it's political muscle for the first time. It's like 'Oh we can do this? Really?'

SW: What technology policy issue is next that you'd like to see tackled?

BH: The next big hurdle is making sure we don't wear out our welcome among the public. We are very concerned [that] there's actually live protests being organized. Is that the nuclear option? And are we exercising that too early? We do this and some other bill shows up, is it another end of the Internet? How many times will the opposition try to throw something in our way? And do we have the stamina to actually get it done?

*Update 9:06 a.m.: Zac Cohen, organizer of the Westlake Center SOPA/PIPA protest says the event has officially been cancelled due to snow. "Our goal is to educate people on the streets, and with this weather there won't be any people on the streets," Cohen says. "You can sign up for a mailing list I've created to get updates on when the event will be [rescheduled]. I'm thinking February, to coincide with Lamar Smith's attempt to revive the bill."

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