SOPA/PIPA have made their way to Europe now. How could this impact the American markets?

SOPA and PIPA, the infamous bills aimed at regulating piracy and privacy by controlling intellectual property on the web, caused a stir earlier this year in the U.S. Everyone from high school students to Fortune 500 companies was involved in the issue and many took part in the law-making process by contacting their congressional representatives. After encountering massive resistance and amidst public protest, the two bills got squashed. Thanks to the marketing campaigns of thousands of websites, including Google, Wikipedia, and even NetHosting, people were alerted just in time to preserve the unregulated freedom that allows the web to be a profitable ground for business, entertainment, and knowledge.

A European SOPA?

Similar issues are now up for debate as the EU is working to pass laws that would control the existence of certain information on the internet. Europe may seem like half a world away, but the internet brings us all closer. Who knows? Could the butterfly flapping its wings on a German website today cause an E-commerce earthquake tomorrow in America?

New Proposals Give More Power to the People

Viviane Reding, the Justice Commissioner for the EU, has proposed to equalize laws throughout the 27 European countries, forcing sites to remove information regarding a consumer if the consumer request it be removed. For example, if someone has posted their picture to the internet but no longer wishes it to be there (on Facebook or Twitter), they may request that it be taken down by the website, even if others have copied it and it has gone viral. A company that does not comply with their consumer’s requests to remove information can be fined up to 2% of its global turnover.

What’s the Big Idea Behind This Move, Anyway?

Two big ideas are at work behind the proposals:

  1. Right to Not Be Denied Access to the Internet: Last year, the United Nations declared access to the internet as a human right. It requested that governments recognize this and not use their power to disconnect people from the internet as a punishment or to protect against piracy. That’s a big deal for the rights of the individual. But whenever a right is conceived, the right must be able to be protected and enforced.
  2. Right to be Forgotten: Unlike America, many European countries share the idea of a “right of oblivion,” which allows criminals who have served their time to theoretically “start over.” Former criminals may request the fact of their crimes and incarceration to be kept secret and unpublicized. The new proposals attempt to transfer this idea to the internet by requiring that sensitive information about an individual be erased if that individual requests, or not come up in a search.

The Criticisms

Current criticisms of the proposals aim at the measures that must be taken to enforce the proposals, not necessarily the value itself.

  • Many actions are very difficult to erase completely from the internet, particularly when they have gone viral. How will this problem be tackled and who will do it?
  • With these kinds of measures taken to ensure the right of the individual, will internet results be as free as they are now?
  • The right of oblivion normally works to take down truthful information posted about an individual by others. But what happens if a person posts that information themselves?

Professor Jeffrey Rosen, an opponent of the proposals, expresses this fear in the Stanford Law Review: “Although Reding depicted the new right as a modest expansion of existing data privacy rights, in fact, it represents the biggest threat to free speech on the internet in the next coming decade.”

Who’s Right?

The resistance to SOPA and PIPA, and now to the new European Proposals, is not about the values of the efforts- but rather, their logistics.

How can you regulate what happens on the web? How can you punish companies when the services they sold to others are abused?  How do you measure privacy and free speech on such an ever-changing, cosmopolitan entity like the internet?

Rosen believes that unresolved ambiguities about the online “right” may cause “a dramatic clash between European and American conceptions of the proper balance between privacy and free speech, leading to a far less open internet.” These value discrepancies could possibly impact trade laws, particularly those that deal with online purchases and intellectual property trade through virtual mediums.

As our lives, money, and rights become more entwined with the internet, it will become more important to be aware of the virtual atmospheres our businesses occupy.