Why the proposed US copyright regulations should worry UK citizens

Referring to today’s 24-hour Wikipedia blackout in protest againstĀ proposed US copyright regulations, a colleague at work asks:

Could someone explain to me why wikipedia et al wouldn’t just move hosting to a different country if they have issue with US regulations… this blackout kind of implies that US law regulates the whole internet

A site like Wikipedia is unlikely to be in any position to relocate, given that it’s run in the US by a US-based foundation and has many US editors, but for those of us in the UK with more modest sites this is a legitimate question. Why worry?

You may in fact fall under US regulation

The proposed regulations divide the Internet into “domestic” sites, which are considered to be US-based and so to fall under US regulation, and “foreign” sites, which are all the others.

The definition of a “domestic” site is brief, but not without ambiguity: it’s a site with a domain nameĀ  registered or assigned by a US registrar, or (if it has no domain name) a site hosted in the US.

I can’t tell whether that means names whose top-level domains have US-based sponsoring registrars, including all .org, .com and .net domains, or only those whose registration was carried out by a US-based registrar. Either way it will cover quite a high proportion of sites being run outside the US at present. I’m also unsure whether non-US domains such as .co.uk might be considered domestic if they were registered through a US registrar.

Even if you don’t, these laws are intended to affect you

One of the “selling points” of this legislation is that it imposes effective controls on foreign sites as well as domestic ones.

Provisions are included to require infrastructure sites within the US, such as search engines, payment processors, or ad networks, to remove access to or stop working with any foreign sites deemed infringing. The US still operates much of the Internet’s infrastructure and is the biggest market for many of its services. This could be a big problem for many sites even in places that don’t formally consider the US to be the centre of the world.

There’s no effective comeback

The question of whether a foreign site is “infringing” or not would be determined in US courts, and the only way to argue it would be in US courts. That might not be something anyone outside the US would wish to do.

The US has a record of targeting small-scale infringers

It’s tempting to think that none of this would apply to any of us unless we start running sites that intentionally host pirated material. Unfortunately, the US has a track record of aggressively pursuing action against individuals for relatively minor infringements (see 1, 2, 3, etc). It’s not unreasonable to fear that a general blog-hosting site in the UK, or any site that permits comments, or a research site that refers to audio or video media, could end up being harshly punished for something it never intended.

Afraid, or just concerned?

It’s possible that none of this would affect any of us, in practice.

But it’s also possible that these regulations might be more of a headache for people outside the US than for anyone within it, given their explicit provisions to deal with foreign sites and lack of recourse for foreign site operators, and the concentration of Internet resources and facilities inside the US. If Americans are worried, we should at very least be keeping a wary eye open as well.

See also

Update: I had missed this article on The Verge which answers and clarifies several of the things I had wondered about, and also makes the situation look even worse from a UK perspective.