What is SOPA?
If you’ve been on Facebook, Reddit, or almost any other social media website recently, you’ve probably heard about the much-discussed Internet censorship bill. Fiercely opposed by Mozilla, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and thousands of people who make their living online, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is set to be discussed by the House tomorrow. But what is SOPA, and is it really designed to break the Internet?
Good Intentions, Questionable Details
The Stop Online Piracy Act started off with good intentions. It was designed to put an end copyright law infringement, an issue which has cost the United States dearly, with estimates placing the amount of money lost to be somewhere in the billions. It’s geared towards “rogue sites,” which are foreign websites out of reach of U.S. laws.
The issue is that these websites are peddling counterfeit and pirated goods online, thereby infringing upon American copyright statutes and rights to intellectual property. In response to this, SOPA allows the United States to punish rogue websites which profit from copyright violations. By punishing these websites, steps towards the preservation of intellectual property are achieved, the bad guys get the boot, and all is well. Right?
Not exactly. With SOPA, the devil is in the details. After consulting blogs, reports, and columns both in-favor and against SOPA, one of the biggest concerns boils down to how the government is being allowed to punish rogue websites: by requiring search engines, Internet providers, and ad networks to block access to blacklisted websites, an act which many critics are stating is a stone’s throw away from all-out Internet censorship.
Critics also maintain that the bill’s vague language suggests that users and websites who post, host, or link copyrighted material could face consequences as well. Therefore, critics argue, major websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are in danger if SOPA were to pass, leading to a massive rallying cry from all corners of the Web.
Websites like fightforthefuture.org and iworkfortheinternet.org have gained huge amounts of attention in the past few months since SOPA was first conceived, and reports by the American Censorship Day website state that over a million people have e-mailed Congress, 87,000+ people have made telephone calls, and untold numbers of individuals have reposted, shared, and up-voted links to various petitions and instructions with how to contact House representatives in order to express their grievances. In short, social media has unified in a short amount of time to fight for their freedoms as Internet users.
This outcry hasn’t gone unnoticed. One of the biggest supporters of the bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), said “claims that this bill will ‘break’ the Internet are unfounded. When one-quarter of Internet traffic is infringing, something is already in need of repair.” In response to the public outcry and in an attempt to set the record straight about SOPA’s intentions, he penned a manager’s amendment which, as he states, “makes it clear that the legislation specifically targets the worst-of-the-worst foreign rogue websites. Legitimate and lawful websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have nothing to worry about under this bill.”
So What Does It All Mean?
No, SOPA doesn’t explicitly state that it will venture out and shut down any and all websites that feature copyrighted content and it’s very unlikely that the government will shut down Tumblr or YouTube anytime soon. But the implications of the bill are frightening enough to garner staunch opposition from many of the biggest tech companies around because the act of censoring a website – even if they’ve broken a copyright law – is crossing a line.
Proponents of SOPA argue that brick-and-mortar buildings must face consequences for violating copyright law, so what makes websites any different? While this is a valid point, censoring a website lends itself to too many possibilities. We don’t extinguish a brick-and-mortar building’s foundation for violating a copyright law, but censoring a website effectively kills its existence.
This lends itself to the loss of innovation many critics argue is an inevitable and unintended consequence of SOPA because not all websites are rogue sources of piracy and counterfeiting. Many websites offer inspiration and resources for artists, businessmen, and other professionals to benefit from, and if they are shut down for profiting from a broken copyright law, people are missing out on the opportunity to experience new things, even if it’s just a touching quote or a funny picture of a cat. And that loss of opportunity, to me, seems wrong.
OPEN and Some Closing Thoughts
The possibilities of censorship have lead to the creation of an alternative anti-piracy bill. OPEN, or the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, was penned by a coalition of lawmakers including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). It places infringement cases not under the judgment of the United States Judiciary Committee, but under the International Trade Commission.
What makes OPEN a less frightening bill is that it does not create any denial of service or censorship; instead, it works to prevent the flow of money that allows pirated movies, music, etc. to be downloaded or purchased by halting the actions of advertisers and credit card companies working with the rogue website. Currently, OPEN is still in its draft stages.
So, long story short: will SOPA end the Internet as we know it? Probably not. But the possibilities that arise from its legislation are enough to warrant some debate, and it’ll be interesting to see how tomorrow’s hearing plays out.