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Q&A: Copyright Enforcement Vs. Censorship -- Impact Of 'Megaupload' Case

The founder of the file-sharing website Megaupload, Kim Dotcom, a German national also known as Kim Schmitz, appears in a court in Auckland on January 23.
The founder of the file-sharing website Megaupload, Kim Dotcom, a German national also known as Kim Schmitz, appears in a court in Auckland on January 23.
Joss Wright, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, speaks to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about the possible impact of the Megaupload copyright case on Internet freedoms around the world.

RFE/RL: The U.S. government shut down the file-sharing websites of Megaupload on grounds of copyright infringement last week without the use of two proposed U.S. laws that are quite controversial -- the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the Protect IP Act, or PIPA. Does the Megaupload case suggest that SOPA and PIPA are unnecessary?

Joss Wright:
It's an interesting coincidence that [the closure of Megaupload] happened on the same day that the SOPA and PIPA legislation was pushed back by the U.S. government -- where it was eventually decided that it wasn't going to be debated in response to these protests that were happening around the world. It was interesting to see that, really, the powers that SOPA and PIPA were going to be granting the U.S. government -- the powers that people were most worried about -- it was demonstrated in the Megaupload case that really those powers already existed.

Joss Wright
Joss Wright
There is a lot of power that the U.S. government has, when it chooses to have it, over websites -- particularly websites that are knowingly and notably infringing copyright. The Megaupload [case] -- you could almost consider it as an example [by the U.S. government] to say, "Look. We have a certain amount of power. We can take down websites and we will take down websites if we feel they are harming our interests."

RFE/RL: Is there a danger that dictators or autocratic regimes in other countries might use the U.S. case against Megaupload as grounds to justify clampdowns on Internet freedoms?

Around the world, when you look at it, every country to some extent censors or controls the amount of information that is going across the Internet. But it's very difficult for the U.S. to promote free and open communications on the Internet when Iran is stopping the flow of information on the Internet, but then turn around and censor sites on their own Internet. Other countries can say, "If you can censor the Internet because people are sharing copyrighted content, why can't we censor the Internet because people are saying things that are deeply offensive to our culture and our religion or political viewpoint?"

In a wider sense, it's difficult to draw the line between what is censorship and what is enforcing our laws.

RFE/RL: On a global level, what other dangers are posed to freedom of information over the Internet by the U.S. argument that it can shut down websites that violate copyrights?

The approach that the U.S. has taken here has been very much focused on the legality, the legal issues. And particularly, when you are talking about copyright, you are talking about the Berne Convention. You're talking about one of the very, very few laws that has almost universal international acceptance.

To some extent, this is why a lot of people are concerned. It's because this gets the idea of Internet censorship into play. And the great concern is that this can be extended. Once we start taking down websites in this very broad, in this very easy to achieve sense for these kinds of claims, then we start to move toward an Internet where a lot of content that we disagree with can be taken down. And we come up with a much less free and much less open Internet.

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