The trouble with trying to control the Internet

On January 18 last year, anyone who tried to do a search on Google would have found the company's multi-coloured logo blacked out on the site. At the same time, over at Wikipedia, none of the millions of articles were accessible.

The pattern was repeated across some of the web's biggest brands. Amazon, Imgur, Flickr, Pinterest, Wordpress, Craigslist and many others had parts of all of their sites blacked out.

But this was not an attack by hackers. This was a protest.

It remains, to date, the largest coordinated online protest to have ever taken place. The sites were protesting two pieces of proposed legislation in the US: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

The stated purpose of the two laws were to make it harder for websites to sell or distribute pirated material.

How it intended to do that though was to empower the authorities to get a court order requiring an Internet Service Provider to take "technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site". The bills would prevent sites from linking to any websites that are "dedicated to the theft of US property".

While many could agree with the desired intent of the legislation, the problem was that it effectively amounts to trying to censor the Internet. Asking an ISP to block access to a site deemed rogue felt to many like the Government exerting complete authority on the hitherto free-wheeling World Wide Web.

And while both SOPA and PIPA remain outside the law books, the battle was neither the first nor the last time Netizens and Governments would face-off over Internet regulation. Recent years have seen a push by nearly all Governments to try and rein in cyberspace.

In July that year, the Russian parliament adopted a bill that created an Internet blacklist, forcing site owners and ISPs to shut down any site that made the list. At the same time, the Parliament in UK debated a communications bill that would give the police and intelligence services the power to compel ISPs to collect and retain information about users.

Earlier this month, the US House of representatives passed a Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which would allow security agencies to obtain information like emails and Internet browser history without first having to get a search warrant or a court subpoena.

This week, Singapore would have its own controversial Internet legislation.

On Tuesday, the Media Development Authority announced a new online licensing scheme that would apply to news websites that fulfil two criteria: If they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore's news and current affairs over a period of two months, and have at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a period of two months.

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