The Soup on SOPA (and PIPA)

Today, several internet sites, including Wikipedia, WordPress, TwitPic, Reddit, Boing Boing, ICanHasCheezBurger and Mozilla, plan to go dark in protest of two anti-piracy bills: SOPA and PIPA.

What is SOPA?

The Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261), introduced on Oct. 26, 2011, is a bill that would allow copyrighters and the U.S. Department of Justice to seek court orders requiring online advertising networks, payment processors and other organizations to stop doing business with websites and web-based services accused of copyright infringement.

The court orders authorized by the bill could require:

  • Search engines like Google and Yahoo! to restrict search results from linking to allegedly infringing U.S. and foreign websites
  • Internet service providers to alter their domain name service (DNS) servers to stop referring requests for infringing domains to their assigned IP addresses (i.e., shut down allegedly infringing websites)
  • Payment providers like PayPal to shut down the payment accounts of foreign websites that host illegally copied material
  • Advertising services like Google’s AdSense to refuse any ads or payment from foreign sites that host illegally copied content

The bill gives legal immunity to ISPs that independently block websites that host illegally copied material without any prompting from the U.S. governments. Meaning, major ISPs could block foreign services that compete with them, as long as they claim they have “reasonable belief” the foreign competitor was “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.”

The bill would also make it a crime to stream works protected by copyright without permission. The maximum penalty would be five years in prison for a first offense of streaming 10 pieces of music or movies within six months.

What do SOPA supporters say?

While SOPA was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), it is a bipartisan bill with close to 25 co-sponsors and supported by over 60 associations. Three organizations that have been most vocal about the bill include the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Proponents of the bill argue that SOPA (and PIPA) will protect U.S. citizens and corporations from the ongoing theft of property outside U.S. borders, and that the law is tailored to only punish those who profit from illegal content.

What do SOPA opponents say?

In addition to the sites going dark today, SOPA opponents include Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Zynga, eBay, Yahoo and AOL.

Opponents of the bill argue that the bill would devastate the online economy and the overall freedom of the web, greatly affecting sites with heavy user-generated content (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, etc.). Additionally, as described in a letter by major opponents of the bill to members of Congress, the bill would post a serious risk to the online/tech industry’s “track record of innovation and job creation, as well as our nations’ cybersecurity.” Opponents also argue that SOPA would invite “an explosion of innovation-killing lawsuits and legislation.”

Critics have charged that the language of the bill has free speech implications that would limit the nature of the internet as we know it.

Opponents also argue that the bill would create uncertainty for investors in the internet (a major source of job creation right now), thereby compromising the U.S. economy.

What is PIPA?

PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) is the Senate equivalent of the Congress- lead SOPA. PIPA is a re-write of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) (United States Senate Bill S.3804), which failed to pass in 2010. One of the main differences is that PIPA only targets DNS providers, financial companies and advertising networks–not ISPs. Essentially, SOPA is a broader bill.

Recent Developments

This past weekend marked major victories for opponents of SOPA and PIPA:

  • On Saturday, the White House officially responded to two online petitions rejecting SOPA and PIPA: “Stop the E-PARASITE Act” and “Veto the SOPA bill and any other future bills that threaten to diminish the free flow of information.” The White House statements read in part: “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”
  • Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that he would pull the highly contested DNS provisions from the bill (the original SOPA bill called for DNS blocking of infringing sites).

My 2¢:

As a holder of U.S. copyrights and an avid internet user, I am of the mind that copyright issues should be taken up by the copyright holder and the infringing party–not the U.S. government.

The fact that the entertainment industry is the major sponsors of this bill is no coincidence–those music and film organizations are in the midst of an industry evolution that threatens their revenue. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the entertainment industry to re-reconsider their distribution models to accommodate the Internet era.

I am all for protecting property, however, the problem I find with SOPA and PIPA is that supporters of the bill are targeting the wrong parties. Instead of going after foreign pirates directly (which in all fairness, would be an arduous and often impossible undertaking), SOPA and PIPA go after the U.S.-based internet services, social networks, blogs, and payment processors doing business with those infringing foreign companies. If the bills passed, the result could be a kind of internet “police-state”, with U.S. courts authorizing firewalls on foreign sites, creating major censorship issues. Sound familiar?

What happens next?

The SOPA and PIPA debate isn’t over. The White house plans to “continue to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis on legislation that provides new tools needed in the global fight against piracy and counterfeiting, while vigorously defending an open Internet based on the values of free expression, privacy, security and innovation.”

Several internet sites will move forward with going dark today to protest the bills which are still being debated in Washington. While the SOPA bill is currently on hold, PIPA is up for vote in the Senate on January 24.

What can we do?

  • Remain informed about SOPA and PIPA and make your own conclusion about whether or not you support these bills.
  • Talk to your friends and colleagues about the bills.
  • Contact your representatives and let them know what you think.

The future of the Internet is being debated, which means it isn’t too late to make our voices heard.

Thanks for reading. Please share your thoughts and leave a comment below.

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    Comments

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  2. 01/18 2012

    It’s been interesting to see that the focus today has stayed on SOPA, whereas PIPA is actually now more advanced and arguably more threatening. Suppose it’s difficult to keep changing acronymns.

    The blackout today has been hugely important. It needed some sites that were heavily visited by casual internet users (rather than those more involved in the digital media industry) to go dark, in order to really raise the public profile of the issue.

    I think it’s important that the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign stays away from any suggestion that it’s looking to simply support free content and copyright infringement. That’s a danger, particularly when supporters of SOPA will tend to tag opposition with that label. The issue is free speech and due process, and the threat to innovation in general. There’s nothing wrong in principle with legislation that looks to protect copyright holders’ intellectual property, but these bills are so hugely flawed that they impact so many other areas negatively.

  3. 01/18 2012

    It’s been interesting to see that the focus today has stayed on SOPA, whereas PIPA is actually now more advanced and arguably more threatening. Suppose it’s difficult to keep changing acronymns.

    The blackout today has been hugely important. It needed some sites that were heavily visited by casual internet users (rather than those more involved in the digital media industry) to go dark, in order to really raise the public profile of the issue.

    I think it’s important that the anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign stays away from any suggestion that it’s looking to simply support free content and copyright infringement. That’s a danger, particularly when supporters of SOPA will tend to tag opposition with that label. The issue is free speech and due process, and the threat to innovation in general. There’s nothing wrong in principle with legislation that looks to protect copyright holders’ intellectual property, but these bills are so hugely flawed that they impact so many other areas negatively.

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