A Year After SOPA, A Look At The Next Five Battles For Internet Freedom

A year since the largest protest in internet history against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) what are the most important issues that activists to focus on?

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Image: CC-BY 2.0 Flickr: anniemole (Annie Mole)

Trevor Timm is an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specialises in surveillance, free speech, and government transparency issues. He is also the co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which supports and funds independent journalism organisations dedicated to transparency and accountability in government.

A year ago today, internet users of all ages, races, and political stripes participated in the largest protest in internet history, flooding USA Congress with millions of emails and phone calls to demand they drop the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — a dangerous bill that would have allowed corporations and the govenrment to censor larger parts of the Web.

But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the fight for internet freedom continues. Here’s a look at the top five issues SOPA activists should focus on next:

Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership: After the historic collapse of SOPA, the content industry has claimed it wants to shy away from anymore excessive legislation that could potentially censor the internet. Instead, it has turned its attention to the international stage. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, better known as TPP, is the latest multilateral trade agreement carrying abusive copyright provisions that the United States, on behalf of Hollywood and major copyright-holding interests, is forcing onto citizens of other countries.

Unfortunately, the treaty is being negotiated in complete secrecy and with no democratic oversight, so we don't even know exactly what these countries have been debating. Fortunately, drafts of the agreement have leaked, and it's at least clear TPP would force countries to drastically lengthen their copyright terms, restrict fair use, institute digital locks to keep people from sharing information, and place greater burdens on websites hosting content. You can read a detailed explanation here. This infographic shows how TPP will affect countries around the world.

If you're reading this from the USA, please go to our action center to tell your representative in Congress to demand transparency surrounding TPP negotiations.

Demand Patent Reform: Recently, our broken patent system has proven to be one of the biggest threats to innovation online. Big tech companies have been locked in billion dollar legal patent wars that do nothing for the consumer. Last year, Google and Apple spent more on patent suits than they did research and development. Meanwhile, untold numbers of patent lawsuits (and even mere threats of suits) involve patent trolls, those who sue start-ups for vague patents that can destroy their business before it gets started.

Luckily, people are starting to notice. Noted Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner called the patent system “chaos“ and said there are too many patents in America, as he dismissed a prominent case involving Apple and Motorola. The Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act, written by Representative Peter DeFazio, along with co-sponsor Representative Jason Chaffetz, would help put an end to a lot of the problems we’ve been noting for years now. Tell your congressional representative to support real patent reform so the tech industry can thrive.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has set up a webpage called defendinnovation.org where we lay out possible reforms for the patent system. You can leave you own comment about how the patent system has affected you and sign our petition, which we plan on taking to Congress along with a list of reforms.

Reforming Draconian Computer Crime Law: The internet has been in mourning this week as one of its true innovators and pioneers, Aaron Swartz, took his own life at the age 26. He was, of course, an early developer of the RSS specification, Creative Commons, Reddit, and a multitude of other projects. Notably, the SOPA protests likely would not have happened without him. He founded Demand Progress, one of the groups which organized the blackout.

At the time of his death, Aaron was facing a relentless and unjust prosecution under the outdated and draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for the supposed “crime” using Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) computer network to download millions of academic articles from the online archive JSTOR, allegedly without "authorization." For that, he faced 13 felony counts, which carried the possibility of decades in prison and crippling fines. His case would have gone to trial in April.

EFF, along with a multitude of other groups, have taken a bill written by Representative Zoe Lofgren and written the first draft of what we hope will become known as “Aaron’s Law” — which will go a long ways in preventing a similar situation from happening to a freedom fighter like Aaron again. If you live in the US you can take action and email your members of Congress to tell them to support reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act here.

Stop the new Internet Surveillance Law: There are rumours that the Obama Administration will propose a far-reaching new internet surveillance law, dramatically expanding the the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which forces forcing telephone companies to build a wiretap-friendly backdoors into all their technology — but not social networks and other web-based communications services.

The White House and the FBI have not released what is in the proposed legislation, but one report states the FBI wants to require internet companies, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to build the same type of backdoors for real-time government surveillance. This not only poses a threat to privacy, but internet security and innovation as well. We need to tell Congress this is unacceptable before it's too late.

Protect Cell Phone Location Data: Cell phone location data is some of the most sensitive data one can possibly send out. Your cell phone sends a signal back to cell phone towers every seven seconds; that data, mapped out over days or weeks, can show "an intimate portrait of a person’s familial and professional associations, political and religious beliefs, even health status," as the New York Times put it.

The US government made a staggering 1.3 million requests for that sort of data last year — and the government believes they can get it without a warrant. The GPS Act, a bill introduced by Senator Ron Wyden would force law enforcement to get a warrant for this data, just like the Fourth Amendment should require.

Meanwhile, app developers have also been sucking up users' location information, many times without the user being aware of that collection. It paints just as intimate a picture of people’s lives as government tracking does. To that end, Senator Al Franken has introduced a bill to restrict and regulate the practice so users are better informed and protected when giving this type of information to private companies. In addition, EFF has also written a Mobile Privacy Bill of Rights, serving as a best practices guide that developers should follow when writing applications for cell phones.

Read more articles by Trevor Timm and find more out about the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He can be found on Twitter at @TrevorTimm, and he co-operates the @Drones Twitter account, which reports on surveillance drones in the US and the secrecy surrounding military drones around the world.

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By Trevor Timm on Jan 22, 2013

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