House Bill 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and its sister legislation Senate Bill 968: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (The PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA for short), has the web abuzz with cries of censorship and runaway government oversight on the internet. But why?
SOPA and PIPA actually started with good intentions. They sought to protect copyright holders on the internet by allowing the Department of Justice to take legal action against “foreign” websites that offer pirated content.
The trouble is how they go about it.
What SOPA/PIPA Would Do
SOPA would allow the US Department of Justice to take action against non-US based websites through court orders. Once these orders were issued, the Attorney General could require internet service providers, advertising networks, search engines, and online payment programs like PayPal, to cease doing business with the offending website. In the case of search engines, that search engine would be required to blacklist the site.
Let’s say that a website in Pakistan is offering bootleg copies of popular movies. Under SOPA, the Department of Justice could:
- Force internet service providers like Comcast to not display the website by undermining the DNS
- Force advertising networks like Google AdSense to neither accept ads for the site nor display ads on the site
- Force search engines like Google and Bing to not display the website in search results
- Force online payment processing programs like PayPal to refuse to process any payment for the site
These actions would effectively shut down the site and stop it from generating profits.
SOPA would also make it a crime to stream unauthorized copyrighted content, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Now you might be thinking that doesn’t sound so bad. After all, these sites are illegally sharing copyrighted content, so they should be punished. But there are some problems.
Criticism of SOPA/PIPA
SOPA/PIPA might sounds like a good idea at first, but there are a number of problems with the legislation.
Unfairly Targeting Innocent Websites
If a site has a forum or comment threads, a user could easily add a link to another site sharing illegal content. With a high volume of comments or forum posts, it might be very hard to spot that link until its too late. And as the web becomes more interactive and user-centric, this will be an increasing issue. It will also force website owners to spend more time on administration, which will increase overhead.
SOPA and PIPA Won’t be Effective Against Pirates
SOPA/PIPA will block websites using DNS (coincidentally, that’s the same thing countries like China and Iran do to censor the internet). Pirates can get around this by simply using the IP address instead. This just isn’t an option for legitimate websites. Furthermore, tampering with the DNS system could introduce new security loopholes.
Punishments Too Harsh
In addition to getting websites shut down, website owners could face harsh criminal charges, including up to five years in prison. When you consider that the party being punished might not be responsible for (or even aware of) the piracy, this seems particularly draconian.
SOPA and PIPA discourage innovation
If website owners worry that their site could be shut down if they cross some poorly defined intellectual property line, they’re going to be less likely to create and post new content. New start-ups will also face many more challenges, which could derail their business ideas before it even starts.
Furthermore, sites like Facebook and Twitter will have to impose much stricter policies about what users can share, and may even have to begin censoring posts.
Conflicts of Interest
Does anyone remember when NBC Universal merged with Comcast, one of the biggest internet service providers? A lot of people were really upset about it for a variety of reasons, but SOPA/PIPA could make it that much worse. SOPA/PIPA will allow ISPs to block website if they have “a reasonable belief” that the website hosts illegal content, which opens the doors to abuse.
How You Can Help
Angry yet? I sure hope so. SOPA/PIPA aren’t done deals yet, and you can help knock them out.
Go to Stop American Censorship for a full range of options, such as mailing your congress person or joining in the internet blackout. They also have some very in depth information on SOPA/PIPA, including this fantastic infographic, if you’re interested in doing more.