What is SOPA? 8 Things to Know About 2012 Bill and Sister Act PIPA

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The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is under debate in Congress for 2012; it is the sister bill to the halted Protect IP Act (PIPA) that passed the Senate in 2010.

On Wednesday, Internet titans like Wikipedia, Reddit and Boing Boing launched a coordinated blackout to protest the bills, and sites like Google slowed their web crawlers and blacked out their logos to show solidarity.

But what is the SOPA bill? Why does it have so many people up in arms? And is it even likely to pass?

At its most basic level, SOPA is a bill reacting to the Internet itself, with all its thorny copyright issues and backdoors. It's also in violation of many parts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a monumental piece of legislation that has shaped the course of the Internet and the institution of online safe spaces since 1998.

SOPA's proponents argue the bill will protect U.S. citizens and corporations from foreign rogue sites, while opponents argue it amounts to nothing less than wholesale censorship with little regulation.

So what does SOPA actually say, and how will it affect Internet users abroad and in the U.S.? Who in Congress and outside it support this bill, and who oppose it?

Here are several things to know about the controversial SOPA legislation, from how supporters argue it would create jobs to why some web sites are arguing it could create online monopolies and a censorship state.

1. What is SOPA?

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced last month by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

SOPA is something of a companion bill to the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA) that passed the Senate earlier this year before Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) placed a hold on it. PIPA aimed to target Web companies hosting unauthorized content from movies, songs or software. It also dealt with the trade of counterfeit goods over the Internet.

Sen. Wyden was strongly opposed to PIPA, saying censorship had the potential to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth.

SOPA however, goes much further than PIPA, as detailed below. It grants the government further powers to go after web sites that are using copyrighted content, makes many more people on the Internet susceptible to legal action, and would have the power to shut down entire domains for one violation, even if that violation was indirect or essentially unknowing.

2. Internet Piracy is Rampant in U.S. and Abroad

On the business-side, online piracy is a huge problem for the U.S., and will continue to be so in 2012. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that U.S. companies lose roughly $135 billion a year to counterfeiting and piracy.

Fundamentally, this is about jobs, said Michael O'Leary, a witness for the Motion Picture Association of America in Congress.

Online piracy's effects arent' just limited to the area they target, or to the businesses they steal from. The ripple effect goes beyond studios and companies, and even the artists within them: it can also affect any of the thousands of businesses that work within the entertainment and retail industries.

In the future, SOPA would allow for much bigger returns on these companies' investments, and could stop the industry from shrinking, cutting jobs and whole sectors.

3. But It's Not Just About Internet Piracy

SOPA's proponents argue that online infringement has become an epidemic. In order to combat such flagrant abuses of copyright legislation, extreme measures must be taken.

Those in favor of the bill argue that only egregious violators will be targeted.

As one blogger for the MPAA wrote: SOPA will target rogue sites that knowingly and deliberately engage in the illegal distribution of stolen content, including movies and television shows, for profit. Such uses of the bill would go after web sites like Megavideo and Sidereel.com.

SOPA legislation however, just like sister-bill Protect IP, is written in very broad, vague terms, meaning even sites that use song clips, or create GIFs using scenes from copyrighted movies, could potentially be forced to remove the content or be shut down entirely.

In order to qualify as a violation of SOPA, this is all the site needs to be directed toward the U.S. and either engage in, enable, or facilitate infringement or be taking steps avoid confirming a high probability of copyright infringement.

Such sweeping legislation affects almost every share-content site on the Internet today, especially in Tumblr accounts and sites like reddit.com.

4. SOPA Has Power to Make Sites (and Information) Disappear

Opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act have pointed out many ways in which the censorship hidden in the proposed legislation is barely any different from China's censorship of Google, a phenomenon many Americans are fond of decrying on a regular basis.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been instrumental in compiling a series of articles on the overarching effect of the SOPA and Protect IP Acts, and have done a breakdown of the terminology within the controversial bill.

Looking into the language hiding under crusades against foreign sites streaming movies, SOPA would require service providers to disappear web sites violating copyright content. The message this sends? It's okay endanger Internet security, and censor entire sites, as long as it's in the name of IP enforcement.

Currently, the Digital Millennium Copyrigth Act (DMCA) grants immunity to Web sites for content posted on their site by users (which is why all of Youtube isn't taken down every time someone posts the entirety of The Princess Bride online). SOPA blurs the distinction between the site's host and those who post there, eliminating many Internet safe harbors for shared content. Sites could be punished simply for not doing enough (and the bill does not yet specify just what enough would be) to police their site, even if the owner didn't post anything illegal themselves.

And if SOPA is allowed to blacklist entire domains in the manner, the EFF points out, it will also mean turning off thousands of underlying web sites associated with the offender, even if they've violated no laws.

Type in the URL of the targeted site, and the web site, as well as all its direct and indirect associates, would never appear, even though it still technically existed.

It also means that what happened to Wikileaks via voluntary censorship could now occur in a systematized and streamlined way, as long as someone, somewhere, believes their IP rights are being violated.

5. SOPA Could Create Online Monopolies

Computer World, meanwhile, has been focusing on the Act's effect on advertising networks and payment sites, in 2012 and beyond.

In its current form, the bill gives content owners the right to tell networks and services like Mastercard and PayPal to stop providing services to the allegedly offending web site.

Without needing to consult Congress' DMCA safe harbor laws or even a judge's verdict that the site is guilty, the payment processor or ad service would have five days to cut off all financial support, with these sires granted full immunity for any actions taken at the request of content users. The entire site would then be financially choked off, with the owners given only five days to realize the situation and file a counter-notice.

How could this amount to a monopoly? Because it gives companies like PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and even parts of Wikipedia enormous incentive to comply with Hollywood, the MPAA and big record companies' requests.

As the history of the DMCA has already shown, content owners often send out complaints that turn out to be bogus, merely to ensure that all content, even in the form of movie stills and 30 second song clips, is under their purview.

Search engines like Google and Yahoo could also fit under this bill, meaning any violation of privacy laws, even in one post on one page of the site, could remove it from being searched online.

The solutions [outlined in SOPA] are draconian, Google Executive Eric Schmidt told The Christian Science Monitor. There's a bill that would require [Internet service providers] to remove URLs from the Web, which is also known as censorship last time I checked.

6. SOPA and PIPA's Unlikely (And Increasingly Reluctant) Supporters

Until Internet titans like Wikipedia and ordinary citizens like those on Tumblr and Facebook began to oppose the bills, both PIPA and SOPA were some of the least-disputed pieces of legislation this session.

Both acts began with substantial bipartisan support, with nods from everyone from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), head of the Democratic National Committee.

But while both parties initially supported both SOPA and PIPA, it was Democrats who held a slim majority of the yea votes. Libertarians were among the only ones to take strong stands against PIPA and SOPA in the beginning, along wtih Democratic standout Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House Minority Leader.

After yesterday's mass blackout, however, support for SOPA has already begun to fold. Many of the sites participating in the protest urged users to contact their representatives, and Congress was reportedly flooded with letters and emails.

As of yesterday, several sponsors of the bills, including Senators Roy Blunt (R-Miss.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have withdrawn their support for SOPA.

Some have begun to blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) for rushing the Senate version of the SOPA bill without noting the unintended consequences of the legislation.

Many of these congressmen, however, still support policing online piracy, and are considering support for PIPA.

7. SOPA is About Future, Not Present

SOPA's biggest critics and most die-hard supporters have found one thing on which they can agree whole-heartedly agree on one thing: this bill, and its sister PIPA, are likely to have a huge effect on the future of the Internet if they pass, affecting everything from the security of the DMCA to the shape of the shape of the sites and systems created and going viral every day.

To give some perspective: if SOPA had been introduced in 1991, not 2011, Youtube would not exist, at least in nothing remotely like the form it has taken. Sites like Hulu, with copyright-allowed streaming and frequent ad breaks, would dominate now-hunted sites like Megavideo and Sidereel.com.

Facebook would be even more embroiled in ad companies and Big Media than it even is today. Google would block more than two-thirds of all Tumblr accounts, if the blogging host even existed.

8. Here's The Thing: The Internet is Fighting Back

Many are worried that with the defeat of SOPA in Congress, which is looking more and more likely, legislators will simply turn to the Protect IP Act and try to push that bill through instead.

But Internet giants like Tumblr, Wikipedia and Google are already ahead of the curve. As early on as Nov. 16, 2011, Tumblr led the charge for American Censorship Day by treating users to parts of their feed being black-barred, with the word Censored written across it in all-caps.

And during yesterday's coordinated blackout, running sites like Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with commenters voicing their support for the protest and taking a stand against both SOPA and PIPA.

A poll by IBTimes indicated that roughly 50 percent of those surveyed were significantly affected by the blackout, with another 30 percent somewhat affected. Over 85 percent of those polled indicated unwavering support for the SOPA/PIPA protest.

And while Twitter, AOL and Facebook may not have taken part in the blackout, they did join sites like Google, LinkedIn and Zynga to sign a letter to Congress last year voicing their opposition to both pieces of legislation.

Since their enactment in 1998, the DMCA's safe harbor provisions for online service providers have been a cornerstone of the U.S. Internet and technology industry's growth and success, the letter read.

In combating online piracy, we should not jeopardize a foundational structure that has worked for content owners and Internet companies alike and provides certainty to innovators with new ideas for how people create, find, discuss and share information lawfully online.

Since the letter's publication, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution against the bill, stressing the need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi tweeted that the U.S. [needs] to find a better solution.

Another letter by GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul and others in Congress predicted that SOPA would invite an explosion of innovation-killing lawsuits and litigation, and a protest song has even been created.

Those companies who support SOPA, meanwhile, have gotten nothing but a major backlash for their pains.

Hosting and domain registrar company Go Daddy lost more than 37,000 domains over two days after flip-flopping about their stance on the Stop Online Piracy Act, and have since stood firmly against it.

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